Podcast: An Open System Approach to Teaching - Steve Barkley

Podcast: An Open System Approach to Teaching

An Open System Approach to Teaching

Authors, Landon Mascareñaz and Doannie Tran share insights from their work with creating open systems for change that can have implications for being open in our classroom environments. They explore what it would mean for teachers to be democracy builders?  

John Dewey – “What direction shall we give to the work of school so that it the richness and fullness of the democratic way of life in all its scope may be promoted?”

Find out more at: https://www.theopensystem.org/

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Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.410] – Steve [Intro]

Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of Steve Barkley Ponders out loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers, the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.


[00:00:32.650] – Steve

An open system approach to teaching. Landon Mascareñaz and Doannie Tran, the authors of, “The Open System: Redesigning Education and Reigniting Democracy” are joining our podcast today. They both have extensive backgrounds supporting educators, systems, and communities in revitalizing schools and communities based on openness. I asked them if they would share how the important elements of an open system might apply to a classroom. Landon, I’m wondering if you’d start with a broad understanding of an open and closed system as to how that might apply to a classroom.


[00:01:18.000] – Landon

Well, first off, thanks for having us on, Steve. Excited to be here. Thanks teachers, for all the work you do all over the world to bring the light of knowledge and connection to students. One of the reasons we chose the words open and closed as ways to understand the opportunity for building and co-creating community is that they are ancient words, Steve. And we think every teacher in the world can understand what it means to have an open classroom, one that welcomes in students, families, parents, and communities into their space, and one that actually maybe requires them to leave their classroom and connect to their community more broadly, to go to the local community hubs, community centers, to into their students’ homes for a home visit. And really, versus a closed classroom which says no one gets to come in, no other expertise is valid but mine that no other experiences matter in the learning trajectory of our students, and that mental model we believe is important to begin the understanding of how this could apply to a classroom.


[00:02:17.550] – Steve

Doannie, I noted that you’ve been a middle and high school science teacher, and I’m wondering thoughts on how those experiences influenced your exploration and passion for a focus on an open system.


[00:02:33.330] – Doannie

Well, thank you so much for hearkening back to the happiest years of my life. I was a middle school science teacher in Oakland, California, and then a high school science teacher in Boston, and they really catalyzed my love of engaging differently with community. So when I think about an open system in the context of a classroom, I think about it in a bunch of different ways, many of which teachers are already doing. So, I know so many educators who co-create their class agreements or class constitutions, their class rules with the young people that are there because at the end of the day, an open system is really just about building a deeper level of commitment through gaining consent, through the process of co-creation. And so any teacher who creates their classroom rules with their young people, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re just trying to build a greater sense of collective ownership of this shared thing that they built together. And so another place where I could see it playing out is also within the context of the back to school night. I remember when I was a science teacher, doing back to school night was not me going through the syllabus, which is fine, you should totally do that.


[00:03:52.590] – Doannie

But also engaging families in defining what does science mean to you? What does it mean in your cultural context? Where have you seen science play a role in your experience and building some shared knowledge with them? And then there’s the other aspect that I loved doing when I was a science teacher, was actually getting my kids to solve community problems. So when I was a science teacher in Oakland, we actually engaged in this project where we tested some candies that an NPR report had told us may contain lead. And so we did chemical testing of all of these different types of candies, and then we published a community report on that and passed it out and shared what we had found, which is another example of dynamism and energy between the community and schools. And we did similar things in high school. It’s almost even easier in high school. But these are just two ways or three ways in which I know educators are already enacting an open system in the way that they do their work.


[00:04:52.350] – Steve

So I’d like to kind of get a picture painted here. If I’m a teacher and I’m experiencing a district and building leadership that’s implementing more open practices, what might I, as a teacher, be finding in the environment that’s moving in that direction?


[00:05:14.450] – Landon

It’s a really important question. I think that I really believe it begins with the relationship components. What does it mean to meet one on one with every kid, to ask their hopes and dreams to sit down with their parent, to also ask their hopes and dreams for their child? I think that there are like a million creative ideas that teachers can come up with to think about co-creation and openness in their classroom, yet it begins with their ability, first and foremost, to have an open heart and open mind themselves in their ability to kind of ask the questions that you’re talking about here. And then it requires them to be able to get to know their community of students, of parents and families. When I was at Denver Public Schools, we ran a pretty significant home visit program. We achieved over 11,000 home visits one year that we were there. I mean, that’s an incredible program because it actually creates the conditions for relational connection that we then believe open up the opportunities for co-creation after that. And that it’s very hard to co create with people you don’t know or you aren’t willing to sit down and learn from. And that has to be a part of the journey.


[00:06:26.890] – Steve

For sure. How about a student? So I’m a student in a classroom where the teacher has taken a more open approach. What’s it look like and sound like to the student?I


[00:06:38.910] – Doannie

I think the overarching thread is that I think Landon’s introduction to an open system spoke to is, are you respected as a contributor to this common community? Do you have expertise that matters? Do you have a perspective that matters? And I think that people inherently can very easily determine whether or not that’s true when they come into a space. They know whether or not things are performative, and it’s just for show, that it’s just a rubber stamp, or I think for a young person, they know when they come into a place that are they really a part of this classroom community and able to exercise some agency in it or are they just there to receive whatever the person in power wants to share with them? And I think that can come down to I think we know how to ask for feedback in ways that get us to where we want to go. But it is about asking the questions in a way that is truly open to wherever the conversation might have to go. Because we know how to construct things to get to our desired outcomes, but that’s not the point of open leadership in the classroom setting.


[00:08:06.810] – Steve

I’m laughing because I do a lot of training in coaching, training people to coach teachers, and it never fails that I’m going to do a model and so I’ll ask the person who’s designing in charge of the system to find somebody who will model with me. So I said, we’re going to have a model conference in front of the group. So I’ll get a note from the person – they say, “thanks, Steve. I’m looking forward this. Can you send me the questions in advance?” And my response is “no, I can’t. Do you know why?” And then I tell them, because I don’t know what the second question is going to be until I answer to your first one. That whole idea of a conversation where I’m following them rather than leading them is a surprise to a lot of educators.


[00:09:03.550] – Landon

It’s a completely different change for a lot of folks. We don’t train our educators to do the relational work that is required, even at often, the most minimal level, and that we believe that needs to change.


[00:09:17.330] – Steve

There’s a chapter in your book on modeling creative democracy, and you have this quote from John Dewey that caught my attention, and the quote is, “what direction shall we give to the work of the school so that the richness and fullness of the democratic way of life in all its scope may be promoted?” First of all, the quote stopped me. But then, what questions might educators, especially teachers, be asking themselves when they think about that concept of a democratic way of life and all its scope be promoted?


[00:10:02.450] – Landon

I think fundamentally, our educators need to be seen, heard, and understand their role as democracy builders and as a broader society, we have to move beyond this idea that elections are really the only part of democracy. Democracy lives in our hearts. It lives in our beings. It lives in the way we make decisions with our teams, with our family, with our community. It shows up in our daily interactions. And I think we have to be honest when we see our democracies across the world struggling and buckling under the pressure of our modern era and say, well, are we actually in our greatest democracy building structure, education, practicing strong group decision making? Are we teaching people how to work together? Are we teaching people how to make decisions together, to design together, to build together? And then if our educators could be supportive to reconceive their role as democracy builders, that we would be able to have incredible effects to see democratic flourishing live across our society.


[00:11:09.590] – Doannie

One phrase that Landon and I, we had a professor that many people know, Richard Elmore – rest in peace. He’s famous for saying, “task predicts performance.” What you do regularly predicts how you will be able to do that later. And we say, if you want to run a marathon, you don’t read about running a marathon. You don’t watch videos about somebody running marathon. You just have to run. And I think every teacher to this point that Landon’s making so beautifully, if you’re a democracy builder, then what kind of democracy are you modeling? Which is really why we called it model creative democracy. And so within your classroom, does it feel like a democratic space? And one very concrete thing that we talk about in the book is and many of my expeditionary learning friends out there will know exactly what we’re talking about here is the fist to five decision making protocol which is consensus driven. And it models a very different way of engaging a group of people in a shared enterprise and building shared collective commitment and actually increasing discourse by moving away from a 50 plus one sort of voting mechanism, which is the way that people think about democracy in our country right now.


[00:12:28.190] – Doannie

And it doesn’t have to be that way. People can make decisions together. They can propose very clear things and then share their commitment through this simple visual. And I think any teacher can do that on a number of things, not everything, but try it, and that’s what we would encourage people.


[00:12:48.790] – Steve

I’m just pondering on this. I’m actually heading out the next couple of weeks to be working in schools around peer coaching and teachers inviting colleagues into their classrooms. And the teacher that’s inviting someone in is giving them something to look for. Give me some input. And I think I’m going to be putting the word democracy builder out there in front of some folks. If you got 15, 20 minutes, just stop in and look around and just note anything you see that I’m a democracy builder. Anything you see happening. Because you got to get there consciously, and a lot of the things that go in the wrong direction are happening unconsciously. They’re not purposeful decisions that people are making, and without it coming to your attention, you can’t look at making a change there.


[00:13:45.480] – Landon

That’s right.


[00:13:46.730] – Steve

I’m wondering if I can get some closing words of encouragement for teachers. I have to assume most teachers are listening to you, hearing that there’s some risk present here, so give them encouragement to be willing to take on those risks.


[00:14:03.150] – Landon

Well, first off, again, thank you for even being willing to explore new ways of your practice. It’s so hard and challenging, given our current context. But the future of our democracy depends on you. And that doesn’t mean for you to be perfect. It doesn’t mean for you to solve every problem that ever comes across your desk as a teacher. But for every day, potentially one day at a time, you to take a step forward to build a better democracy in your classroom could change the world.


[00:14:34.950] – Doannie

And it’s something that Landon brought into our writing process for the book, and it shows up in the book, too is progress, not perfection. Take a small bite. Be a democratic leader and a democracy builder in small ways that feel, manageable, and doable to you, and then look for more and more opportunities to do just that.


[00:14:55.230] – Steve

Thanks, guys. I’m sure that listeners heard in your words, what I heard was both the challenge and the encouragement and the importance of the outcome is what would push to take the challenge and be encouraged to stay with it. Tell folks the best way that they might follow up, continue to learn more about the work you’re doing, find your book.


[00:15:21.670] – Landon

You can find us all over social media at The Open System – theopensystem.org, and we can’t wait to hear from you.


[00:15:29.050] – Steve

I’ll be sure to add that to the lead into the podcast. Thanks a lot, guys.


[00:15:33.340] – Landon

Thanks, Steve. Thanks for all you’re doing.


[00:15:37.050] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.


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