The 180 Podcast: Diane Tavenner (Part 2)
Diane Tavenner: The Crucial Teacher, Parent and Child Relationship
In our last podcast, we spoke with Diane Tavenner about the path forward: How schools and families should prepare as we all head into the unknown – the launch of the first full school year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today we talk with Diane again, this time about how she – and the approach to learning that she developed through Summit Public Schools – got here.
Like anything else – perhaps even more so – education today requires a blend of the visionary and the practical: We need the extraordinary ideas and insights to reach the seemingly impossible goal of ensuring opportunity for every child… but also the practical paths – the daily steps required to make those opportunities possible.
But what should that blend look like? How does it integrate not only a clear focus on academics, but also what’s happening beyond the classroom. And how should the crucial teacher, parent and student relationships and responsibilities work together to bring that vision to reality?
Diane answers these questions. And as you’ll hear, “opportunity” and “practical” are very important words in her vocabulary.
Some background: Diane is the co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, which operates 15 public middle and high schools in California and Washington State. She also serves on the board of T.L.P. Education, the organization helping schools across the U.S. to implement Summit Learning – Summit’s personalized approach to education. Before founding Summit, Diane spent ten years as a public school teacher, administrator, and leader in traditional urban and suburban public schools throughout California.
Diane is also the author of “Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life,” which offers “a blueprint for how parents can stop worrying about their children’s future and start helping them prepare for it.”
One note before we start: This second conversation with Diane was actually our first one together. We recorded this conversation about five months ago – in fact, at he start of the talk ask her about a great honor: Bill Gates had recently listed “Prepared” as one of his five holiday recommendations. Unfortunately, just as that conversation was about to post, COVID-19 hit, schools were in turmoil, and we delayed. We’re thrilled to finally release it now.
Chris Riback: Diane, thanks for joining me. I appreciate your time.
Diane Tavenner: Thank you. So glad to be here.
Chris Riback: I think we should start with the question everyone wants to know, which is: What does it feel like to get on Bill Gates’s holiday book recommendation list? One of the most significant and charitable people in the world recommended only five books for the holidays and yours was one of them. Any tips for the rest of us?
Diane Tavenner: Well, Chris, I don’t know about tips, but I can tell you that it feels humbling.
Chris Riback: I’m sure it does.
Diane Tavenner: One thing we know, the reason his list is so important, is because we know that he reads all of these book, and he cares deeply about them. And so, gosh, what an honor for Bill Gates, who knows so much about education and has given so much to it, to actually recognize the book Prepared and the messages in it. So I just am deeply humbled and grateful to him because I wrote the book, to try to initiate a conversation, to invite people into a conversation, and certainly he’s helped a lot with help on that front.
Chris Riback: Certainly – and in helping get the word out. Let’s think about the range: You have a Bill Gates on one end, but I am certain that he’s not the only person who you’ve heard from, the only person to whom this book has spoken. Why do you think what you wrote has spoken to so many people?
Diane Tavenner: Well I can tell you what I’m hearing from people, and it feels like such an honor, but also a responsibility to get the messages I’m getting kind of on a daily basis now from people who’ve read the book. What they’re saying to me is one, they just really welcome an honest, authentic conversation. One of the things I tried to do in the book was be really honest about what it is like to be a parent and to be an educator and the challenges of that and the struggles. And that seems to really resonate with people, the honesty around that.
Diane Tavenner: Then, two, the hopefulness. It’s easy to look around and think that everything is broken or nothing is working or people aren’t talking to each other, and we can’t even have conversations. It’s really easy to think that in education and the truth is, there’s a lot of really amazing work happening and a lot of amazing people and there’s a lot of things to be hopeful about. So, that seems to really be resonating with people. Then finally, just the practicality of it. We are practitioners; we do this work. I’m a mom every single day, and I’m an educator every day, and I’m surrounded by these amazing people who are the same. I think the book just has a lot of practicality to it, that people are really interested in.
Chris Riback: Do I dare ask you which one’s harder, mom or educator?
Diane Tavenner: It depends on the minute or the hour or the day, I think.
Chris Riback: I bet it does. I thought it was going to be a tie for first.
Diane Tavenner: It really does.
Chris Riback: So, why did you write Prepared?
Diane Tavenner: For many, many years, people have told me, “Oh, you have to write a book.” And I just always thought, “Why? I don’t know why I would write a book. I don’t even know what I would say.” And finally it came to me that I had something to say about this intersection between parents and educators. And what I was finding in school after school and community after community was that parents and educators want the same thing for kids. They want to get them ready for and prepare them for a good, fulfilled life – to be good people and good citizens and do well and be healthy and happy. The “how” to do that was where they were getting tripped up with each other and seem to be talking across and over and around each other in a lot of ways.
Diane Tavenner: It just seemed confusing to me why that was happening, and so it started by literally trying to bring people together around dinner tables and just understand what was going on and then be in dialogue together. And then a good friend of mine said, “A book is, it’s like a six hour conversation, Diane, and so what can you do in a six hour conversation?” I just thought to myself, “Oh my gosh, we can do a lot in a six hour conversation,” and so that’s really how I see the book. Is just as a conversation among people who care passionately about our kids and our future and really want to come together to do something about it.
Chris Riback: You mentioned the word earlier, “practicality.” And in listening to you, it sounds like you saw or heard or thought about a practical need or and you delivered something practical as well. Yes, something with vision of course, and aspiration of course, but also practicality. As I was reading the book and other materials and from you, there are a few words that really come to mind. You begin the very beginning of Prepared, with the story of Isabella. And I don’t want to give away the punchline, but your conclusion was like all kids I know, Isabella wanted an opportunity, not someone to save her. “Opportunity” is an important word for you, isn’t it?
Diane Tavenner: Incredibly important and it’s quite emotional. She is such an inspiration. But she’s like so many of the kids that people like me get the privilege of knowing. What is so often the case is that I think I took more from that relationship than she probably did. What she helps me remember and see was, as a kid who grew up in circumstances that were at times quite traumatic, what I wanted was opportunity. And I wanted to have a voice and I wanted to be heard and I wanted to be able to be my own person and drive my own life. And so many of us who get into this work have such great intentions, and this is parents and educators, but the approach we take is we try to save kids from society or their family or themselves. She’s just such a powerful reminder to me that that’s not what people want. They want to do it themselves. They just need and support and opportunity, and so I just keep that really central to both my parenting and my work.
Chris Riback: She really did not want you to save her.
Diane Tavenner: She did not.
Chris Riback: No, she did not. She didn’t want… and you can fill in the details. But she had been a member of a gang. She had walked away from the gang. She still had the tattoo from the gang, her parents were not… I think they had a drug problem. They might’ve been in her life, but they weren’t caring for her day to day, exactly. She was living with her grandma and that became a very bad situation. I mean, crazy – she was living on the floor because the grandma was having to rent out the room space that she would live in. And Isabella didn’t want the help. You offered a great deal of practical help, “Let me help you move on.” But she really did want the opportunity. She wanted in to Summit Schools.
Diane Tavenner: She did see that and she fought for it, and what I realized in that relationship was me trying to help her in ways that she didn’t want, that was all about me, that wasn’t about her. It’s not what she needed or wanted and she really caused me to check myself and think about what is my purpose in this work? Is my purpose about me, or is it about her? Because if it’s about her, I need to do what she needs, not what makes me feel good. And I’ll be honest with you as a parent, that’s one of the greatest struggle that I experienced and that I see my friends experiencing as parents, is that oftentimes as parents, we do things for our kids, with our kids, to our kids, because they make us feel good. As opposed to, it’s what our kids actually need or want. There’s a reason that story really opens the book and that message is so foundational to this conversation.
Chris Riback: It’s a heck of a way to open the book, and I’m going to ask you about the parenting component that you were just referring to. I think you were referring to a number of different components of parenting, but the concept of failure and allowing kids to fail is a topic that I want to get to with you. But just in finishing this idea of opportunity – I think from having read about you and having heard some of the things that you have said, I think you would be mad at me if I didn’t push you a little bit on the concept of opportunity and ask you, what does the science say about it? I almost feel like that’s a philosophical concept, but the idea that every child has an ability to best take advantage of an opportunity. What does the science have to say about opportunity?
Diane Tavenner: There’s so much science on this, and I sit in this fortunate seat of having access to and being a real student of the science and the practitioner who really tries to take the science and put it into practice. I just want to start with the caveat that I’m not the expert here, but I have deep respect for the science and so my translation of it will be a little bit lay person here, if you’ll pardon me that. The things that resonate for me around this idea from the science are, first of all just the natural human desire and want and need, I think easily summed up for me in my head of mastery, autonomy and purpose. So every human wants to be good at what they do. It’s a natural human thing. We want it. No one wants to be bad at what they do. It doesn’t feed us as people.
Diane Tavenner: We also want to be doing things that are meaningful or purposeful to us and we want some degree of control and autonomy over that. We want some say over our lives. This isn’t just a natural human set of wants and needs. And so for me, the concept of opportunities starts to draw on the science just from who we are as people. Now, what’s important about that is, there’s other part of the science which is about the individuality and how we are each unique people. So certainly we have a lot in common with each other, and certainly there are a set of basic habits and skills and mindsets that benefit us all. But we are each a unique expression of humanity and what our purpose and the things we like to do and the things that we care about. And how all of that comes together, our interests and our curiosity, is unique to each of us.
Diane Tavenner: I like to bring all of those things together and say, “I think the best versions of raising individual human beings are when we’re helping them to discover about themselves.” What do they bring to the world? What are their skills? What are their talents? What do they offer to the world? What matters to them in the world and then what does the world kind of need and how do all those three things come together? To me that’s like opportunities, this is the intersection of all of those things.
Chris Riback: Each child is unique, has different skills, capabilities, personalities, goals and more. So much of the function of teaching and learning and even parenting is preparing our children. What does it mean to be prepared? How do you define that?
Diane Tavenner: So I define it in the way that I think, honestly, most parents and educators do. And this has been one of the really inspiring things of discovery, and that this is where we have just a lot of commonality and a lot of shared vision and belief and that is that. “Prepared” means when a child is entering adulthood that they have a set of skills and knowledge and habits and understanding of themselves that I think is best sort of summed up as a sense of purpose, that collectively come together to equip them … for lack of a better term, a good life or a fulfilled life. We define a fulfilled life, and I think the science helps us define a good life and as kind of having five essential components, the first being the ability to do meaningful, purposeful work on a day to day basis.
Diane Tavenner: There’s an element of financial security and certainly we can talk at length about how that may have been overly dominant in some of our efforts to prepare people. But it is really important, and it’s a sense of financial security that enabled us to move forward. Again, that’s going to be very different, the numbers on that will be very different for different people. The third piece is to be a part of a community. We are social beings and community is really important and to be able to have some strong interpersonal relationships. And then finally the health to go about our daily lives. So those are how we think about the five essential components of a good life or a fulfilled life. And so “prepared,” the idea is you want to enter adulthood equipped with those skills, knowledge, habits, sense of yourself, to access that good life.
Chris Riback: I don’t know if others have pointed this out. Among the things that I took away from the book and you just summed up a significant component of it is, those attributes that you just outlined about having a fulfilled life, everything one reads about being a fulfilled adult, being fulfilled in one’s later years, being fulfilled at various [stages], it encompasses a lot of what you just described: Purposeful work, a sense of community, the ability to go through your daily life. And one of the things that you did in my estimation, that one doesn’t always see, is you are able to reverse engineer that almost and say, “Wait a minute, kids are people, too.” And if these are the components of what defines fulfillment – and by the way, like “opportunity,” “fulfillment” is another word that clearly is central to who you are – but that ability to reverse engineer it, to saying, “Wait a minute, kids are people too,” and maybe we ought to be thinking about how they get educated, how we parent them, maybe we ought to be thinking about it in these very same terms, just in ways that are appropriate for the fact that they are kids and not adults. Is that right?
Diane Tavenner: That’s completely right, and now you’re starting to tap into the kind of nerdy part of me who loves this intersection of science and then the design of both education and parenting and how do we bring those things together. But you’re absolutely right. Reverse engineering or we would call it “backward mapping” is exactly what we have done. And we are students of the science that helps us understand what are those little individual skills and habits and how do you build those skills and habits? Then how do you actually bring all of those together into a coherent, aligned experience in the context of a school environment, or a family environment, or community environment? And how do those all interplay with each other, so that we can, I think really importantly, not have it be luck that some kids just sort of fall into a place or a space that allows that to happen for them, but that we can truly enable all kids to have an experience that prepares them for that fulfilled life and that is reverse engineered?
Diane Tavenner: So that is really our quest, is how can we design schools and be in partnership with families and caregivers and communities, so that all kids have that kind of experience that is benefiting from reverse engineering. So they’re moving towards that preparation for adulthood.
Chris Riback: I want to ask you, of course, about the schools and how that comes to life within the schools. A practicality question coming off of the point that we were just discussing about a fulfilled life. A core idea from your book and the things that you talk about and write about elsewhere, is to urge parents to balance their focus on academics with what’s happening beyond the classroom. First, why is that important? We are all taught, almost force fed that getting into college, which of course is the goal and I shouldn’t be facetious. It is a goal, but there are lots of goals, but it is the goal. We are all taught, almost forced fed that getting into college is about the grades. So why should focus go beyond just the schoolwork?
Diane Tavenner: It’s such a great question. Let me start with the science and then maybe a little bit of the practical part of it from just the experiential part. So one of the things we know from the science is, let’s say all you really care about are the grades and the academic part. Let’s just say that that’s true. What we know is, in order to be better at the pure academics, you actually have to pull on some of these other skills that are not academics. Because what we have now learned is there is a whole suite of what has not been thought of academic skills that actually have a huge and massive influence on our ability to perform academically. So, we can just for a minute stop and pause and think about ourselves as learners. And when you’re in a system of learning, you can know all the math in the world, but if you are unable to meet a deadline or actually put pen to paper and show it or actually be able to explain it to someone, it’s not going to matter if it’s all locked up in your head.
Diane Tavenner: There’s a whole suite of skills around that that enable you to be effectively showing what you know and then applying it in life and then working on it with other people. So it’s really overly simplistic to think that you can ever only focus on the academics. Then I think the second kind of misconception has been, well, some kids are just born with those other skills and others aren’t and they’re just good at it or they’re not. Which again, the science tells us unequivocally is untrue. That there’s this whole suite of skills that really impact academic performance that are in fact skills. That means they’re teachable, they’re developable, they’re learnable, we can get better at them. And so when you start to see those skills in combination with the academic piece and as actual skills that can be taught and learned and developed, now you start to think, “Huh, why are we only focused on math and reading and writing in school? Why aren’t we focused on the full suite of skills that have an impact ultimately on how well we read and how well we do math?”
Diane Tavenner: By the way, most successful people will tell you, if you ask them what makes you successful, they generally do not point to their amazing ability at the quadratic equation. They point to these other skills that have really enabled them to be successful human beings and by the way, powered their strengths in math or some other place. So it’s supported in the science and really intuitive when we just take a step back and think about, what makes us as successful as people and learners.
Chris Riback: Does failing work? When can failure be productive?
Diane Tavenner: The answer is yes and no. There are some real conditions that have to be true for failure to be helpful and that I kind of learned the hard way as a parent.
Chris Riback: That does not include just sending your kid into the kitchen with a bunch of ingredients and saying, “I expect a meal in an hour.”
Diane Tavenner: It’s unfortunate because this idea of failure – I live in Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley has managed to turn, failure into this incredible, amazing, it’s the best thing ever. And what’s missing from that story is, it’s actually not unless it has what I believe are two really important qualities. Failure is effective if it doesn’t close big life’s doors for someone. So there are particular types of failures that can be quite frankly destructive and the most powerful failures are those smaller, more frequent ones that then are coupled with reflection and learning. So it’s only useful to fail if there’s some new insight or some growth or something that comes from that and that actually requires a process of recognizing what happens and reflecting on it and then applying that to the next scenario or situation.
Diane Tavenner: So, I think oftentimes where we go wrong in this, is we wait until the big giant moment, it’s like 11th grade AP English, and we think, “Oh wow, our kid has to fail at some point.” They’re going to fail this course, which actually in practical terms is going to close this significant amount of doors for that child and their future. That’s not the moment to practice failure, because what are you going to learn from that if a lot of doors were closed? Where I think the right moment to fail is, and there’s a million of opportunities, is on that first or second or third project in that course, where the student didn’t put together a good project plan or didn’t manage their time well or didn’t actually appreciate the knowledge that they needed to deeply understand and internalize and kind of skimmed over it and therefore was not able to perform in that moment.
Diane Tavenner: Then got some feedback about that lack of performance and then was able to take that feedback and reflect on it and apply it in order to improve and get better, building skills both academically as well as the other types of habits we talked about. So that’s much more powerful failure. I think when it happens like that and more routinely and we’re consistently with a structure wrapped around it where you’re actually learning from it.
Chris Riback: So I will burden you with asking you a question that you yourself have posed, and I think it gets to the heart of what is a challenge in so much of life, which is balance. Then I want to ask you about this little school system that you have played a role in helping create, and we can talk about that in a second. But first I want to ask you to follow up on the point you were just making, and I want to ask you about helicopter parenting. In one of your recent essays you asked, “So the question for most parents is how do we avoid falling into the trap of being overbearing helicopter parents on the one hand and hands-off free rangers on the other?” I take that as the question of “how do we balance it?” So from the practicality point of view, from what you’ve seen, from what you’ve learned, what’s your guidance to parents? How should one think about that balance?
Diane Tavenner: Well, I think you’re exactly right. It’s balance and like anything that we’re trying to balance, I don’t know that you can steer a completely straight line down the middle at all points. So you’re going to go a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right and try to correct. And so I think the key there is to try to keep that movement as tight as possible down the middle. What I see happening often is parents who are trying not to helicopter for example, saying kind of going completely hands off and all right, well I’m not going to check on my child, I’m going to let them own it completely. I’m going to trust them until that semester grade comes in, and it’s a failure. And then they freak out, and they swing completely to the other side and now they’re hyper monitoring and checking every email and doing all sorts of controlling behaviors.
Diane Tavenner: The unfortunate part about that is, who’s actually helping the child develop the skills to own it themselves? Because they’re not born with those skills in the first part of that equation. Then in the second, who’s helping them actually reflect on where it’s not working and then figure out how to self-correct and go forward? I like to really think of it as our job is coach and mentor and so how could you have a reasonable amount of involvement regularly from the start? How can we think about asking regular and right questions that are prompting our child to take that ownership and help them think about, what their goal is and what they want from something and then when they’re veering away from that, return them to that? How can we sort of keep a steady presence there, that is not controlling and overbearing and most importantly, how can we let them figure out their way of doing things? Which is often different from ours.
Diane Tavenner: One of the hardest parts as a parent is, we have a certain way of doing things. And it doesn’t mean it’s the right way, but can we let our child figure out their way that suits them and works for them? Are we going to impose our way on them? That’s a little bit still high level, but that is kind of the middle ground balancing act. And the best analogy I have is just, we have to think of ourselves as coaches, where we’re not playing the game and we’re not running out on the field, but we’re in practice and we’re helping identify the skills and support the skills development and giving feedback and so we’re a present, but not controlling.
Chris Riback: Well, I think that you have looked at my notes, because you have just helped me segue perfectly to Summit – this concept of coaching and mentorship and, in particular, the role and the unique role that adults can play in kids’ lives. On the website where the Summit experience is described, the site outlines three roles: the teacher’s role, the student’s role, and the family’s role. Why is that triumvirate so important? You don’t see descriptions of schools frequently framed in that way. Summit puts –“imposes” is the wrong word… – asks responsibility, maybe even expects responsibility from three distinct areas. Why is that triumvirate so important?
Diane Tavenner: I think first and probably foremost is actually honest reflection of the three groups that are involved in this process of preparing the child for the future. Again, we believe that those three groups have aligned goals and aligned priorities, aligned hopes, parents and schools, they want the trial to be successful. They want them to be ready for life. They want them to do well. And so I think what we’re doing is just making really overt that reality that we’re all in this together, we want the same things. So let’s embrace that and own that and be really specific and overt about that and then let’s make sure we’re aligned up and working together and how we’re going to get there and the roles that we are going to play in getting there.
Diane Tavenner: One of our incredible school leaders always says, “Clear is kind.” And being really clear about who plays what role and what responsibility we have, we just think is kind to everyone. The motivation is obviously there, I don’t know an educator that doesn’t care about their kids and doesn’t wake up in the morning thinking about and wanting to support their kids. And I don’t know a parent who doesn’t do that. That includes all the parents and the educators who are deeply flawed and have our own issues and struggle, but those are our desires and our wants. And so being really clear with each other, about the various roles we are going to play in this collective project to prepare our kids, is really critical. What good fortune that we have all of those people who are driving in the same direction, and so let’s just make that specific and straightforward.
Chris Riback: It also was a powerful visual that when students graduate, they walked down that graduation aisle with their mentor, which is a teacher, as well as with someone who, in your words, someone who had been important in their journey in life, like a parent or relative. They all succeeded – they all drove that journey to graduation, didn’t they?
Diane Tavenner: They did. When we started our first school, there’s real power in the symbolism quite frankly, in helping to establish a culture and a community and the values of that community. That first graduation we knew intuitively how important it was and what message it was going to send to people about what we cared about and what we valued. That expression of those three groups coming together at this really important moment of transition and celebration, just captures who we are and what we believe in. So you’re right, it is a profound part of that ceremony.
Chris Riback: What is the aligned school model framework?
Diane Tavenner: Again, a bit of on the wonky side. I will tell you on the science side you had talked earlier about this notion of reverse engineering, and so the aligned school model really is the expression of that reverse engineering. What it does is it gives people who are designing or redesigning or thinking about how a school is organized, a real framework that helps them go through and figure out if you have an existing school, where your gaps are and where your problems are. If you’re starting from scratch, it helps you really design a school model, that is truly reverse engineered or backward mapped from your ultimate outcomes. One of the hardest status things is you’ll walk into most schools in America, quite frankly, and they’ll have these incredible aspirations painted on the wall or written on the monument in a file or somewhere on the handbooks… and yet when you look at the actual practices that are happening day to day in the systems and the routines, the science can very quickly tell us that those activities are not going to add up to that, that ultimate goal and aspiration.
Diane Tavenner: There’s a big gap there, and yet we still run these schools every single day. And it’s obvious that there’s a gap there, but we’re not doing anything about that. This framework was really our accountability. It was the way we think about our schools, and we’re constantly checking them and aligning them and whatnot and then how we were able to share with other people the work that we were doing and give them a tool in order to do that in their own school.
Chris Riback: I want to ask you about the measurement and the sharing, both of which are clearly so important to you and to the model. But at the heart of that model is Project Based Learning in a Project Based Learning curriculum. Why is that? Why are projects at the center of how Summit’s kids and students learn?
Diane Tavenner: We can point right back to the science here, because the science is incredibly clear about how we as humans work best and learn best and wrapped up into this concept and this definition of Project Based Learning is all of that science. So an approach to learning that is centered in project base is really rooted in the science of what we know about how people learn. Again, this is also going to be intuitive to people. When I ask people to think back, older people like me, think back to your high school, what are the experiences, what are the learning experiences that you remember most? People inevitably point back to the project that they did that was really real world. It was authentic. They were applying knowledge in a way to answer a question or solve a problem or perform in some way that was meaningful and relevant to them and it kind of brought all these interdisciplinary ideas together often.
Diane Tavenner: There’s a reason that people remember that type of learning: Because it is the most powerful way to learn. And so what we know is for the vast majority of people, sort of sitting in a desk and receiving knowledge is not the best way to learn and then regurgitating it on sort of an assessment. Well, stuff like that has maybe a moment and a time and a place, that is a lot of the place where technology can actually help us and that shouldn’t be the day to day experiences. It’s not the way to maximize learning and so I would point to both the science and then our own experiences, of why daily and year over year, experiences where kids are truly solving real world problems in hands on way and applying knowledge and asking questions, and collaborating and doing performance tasks to show what they know that are really relevant and consistent with what they’ll do in the future in the world, is by far the most powerful way to learn.
Chris Riback: You have taken these learnings and these practical applications we just talked about, you created a model framework. You’ve taken the approach to Project Based Learning curriculum and packaged… isn’t quite the right word, but you promote it or you enable it in a way so that it can be shared with other schools. Why is that important to you? Why does sharing matter? Why does it matter more than just getting your own house in order? Why is it important to you to help enable other people and other schools to get their homes in order as well?
Diane Tavenner: There’s two really important values that underlie this work. The first one is, we are first and foremost a learning organization. And I say that because most schools are not designed to be learning organizations. That sounds crazy, but if you think about the institutions themselves, do not actually have systems and routines and mechanisms that allow them to constantly be learning and evolving and growing. People are oftentimes point out, “Wow, you can walk into a classroom today and it looks the same way it did a hundred years ago,” and that’s somewhat of an exaggeration, but not really in a lot of cases. That is because schools really aren’t designed to be learning entities, which is ironic because what you’re supposed to be doing in them as learning. If there’s one thing that sets Summit apart from most places is that we are a learning organization and entity. And so part of why we share and do what we do is because that’s how you learn.
Diane Tavenner: Learning is a social activity. Learning comes from engaging and interacting and asking questions and looking at what other people are doing and incorporating that and asking for feedback and that’s what we do as an organization. So every time we put something out into the world, we get incredible feedback and people build on it and we learn more and become better because of that. That’s the first value that’s really important there. And then the second one is, we talk about all kids in our mission and our vision and every one of us in this organization comes to this work with the purpose around a real deep belief in the power of education, for all kids and a deep commitment to our country and our world. I think we are a little bit saddened quite frankly by how in some bizarre ways schools compete against each other as if anyone in our society wins, when one school is better than the other.
Diane Tavenner: When my school outranks another one, because the kids over at that other school don’t read and it doesn’t make any sense to us. We fundamentally believe that our country, our communities, our world is a better place if all our kids actually discover their purpose and are prepared for the future. We can imagine a world where so many problems get solved when that is true. And so this scarcity mindset around education doesn’t make any sense to us. So we try to act in accordance with that value and be completely open and share and help everyone serve every child better. Obviously we can’t do that ourselves, so we need to do that in partnership.
Chris Riback: Isn’t that the point, if you talk about personal fulfillment as being one of the points, isn’t societal fulfillment on some level at an equivalent point? Before we close the conversation, I want you to just bring it to life for me a little bit, the framework that you’ve described, that becomes very intentional in every aspect of what you do –school design, educator practice, and enabling adults to deeply know their students, new approaches to measurement. How does your framework help build the best educators that you can have?
Diane Tavenner: It’s such a great question, and I think that probably the best way to start is to talk about our commitment to the kind of the virtuous cycle. So as an educator in our organization, and that’s really everyone in the organization, including me. Our belief is that I, we need to be constantly learning and growing and developing and I and we should be doing that in the same way that we want our kids to be learning and developing. You had made the really important point earlier that, aren’t kids just like mini versions of adults? I mean, we’re all human, and it’s true. The science of learning does not distinguish between an adult and a 15 year old in terms of the size of how we actually learn and so that science works across the board.
Diane Tavenner: As a teacher, I’m learning in a real world authentic way. So much of my learning and development is coming from feedback, and collaboration, and observation and so we’ve built all of these mechanisms into the experience for the teacher and the student in a really virtuous cycle. I think one really concrete example that tends to really kind of blow people’s minds, our teachers have 40 days a year of professional development time. So they’re teaching for six weeks and then two weeks they are in community working on their own craft, and working on their own skills, and their own habits in a community, in a way that is very consistent with the types of learning experiences that their students have.
Diane Tavenner: So they’re growing and getting feedback in very regular intervals. And so that type of commitment to everyone in the organization as a learner and the whole organization being a learning organization, I think really encapsulates how we think about that’s how we’re all constantly, it’s not something that the kids are doing and the adults are doing something differently. We are all constantly learning, growing and getting better.
Chris Riback: On that growing and on that getting better, that involves, in many cases, measurement. I read a quote of yours recently, and I guess it actually depressed me a little bit, which is not how you meant it. But you said, well, “people’s vision and mindset are starting to evolve in regard to what they want from schools. The way they measure schools is still very antiquated, and you went on to talk about how it’s still aligned. Success is measured by scores and standardized scores.” And that’s the part that that bummed me out, because I think it rang true to me. How does that change?
Diane Tavenner: I think the only way that it changes is, we’ve got to start talking about it, we’ve got to recognize it. and we have to start trying some new things. And so that’s why you’ve read a quote – every chance I get, I talk about it, because I think in my mind the thing that’s holding us back the most right now. Maybe I will just tell you this very, what I think is a hopeful anecdote of where this can go and what’s possible and what happens when it is.
Chris Riback: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Diane Tavenner: I will share. My son – and if folks have read the books, they know my son is a senior in high school right now. He’s been in a Summit School since sixth grade. So I am the parent this year who’s going through this process. I’m wondering if I have properly prepared him, and if we have prepared him and getting ready to launch them into adulthood and he applied to a really interesting, unique college called Minerva. This was his first choice by far and it is much like the Summit Schools. It’s new, it’s only four years old, designed from scratch in a very aligned way, including their admissions process. So the story I have to tell you is, when you actually think about designing college admissions from scratch and not in a system that we’re already embedded in and wedded to and whatnot, a couple of interesting things happened.
Diane Tavenner: One, the school doesn’t require or take SAT or ACT scores; that’s not a thing they use. Two, they give kids, the applicants, these performance tasks and so they’re done technologically. It takes a couple of hours, and they’re these fascinating tasks that you can’t actually prepare for. They’re just real opportunities for kids [to] show what they know, what their skills are, what their mindset is, what their habits are, those sorts of things. When my son walked out of having done these tasks one Saturday morning, he also took the SAT and ACT and each of those times they were literally traumatic and miserable experiences for him, where he walked out and felt like, “I have no idea how I did.”
Diane Tavenner: I don’t even know what they’re measuring or testing. It’s so stress inducing and anxiety producing and you’ve walked out of these performance tests that he took from Minerva and I said, “Well, what do you think?” He looked at me and he said, “I don’t know how I did, but it felt fair.” And I thought to myself, wow, imagine if every senior in this country was applying to college and they didn’t know if what they did was going to get them accepted, but it felt fair. What a different country this would be right now. So for me, that is what we’re aiming for and in that moment gave me hope that we can get there.
Chris Riback: That does give hope. It actually brings me back to the one of our opening topics, which is opportunity. It sounds like your son felt like, “You know what? I feel like I was given an opportunity. I wasn’t jammed into a standardized test. It was fair. I have a fair opportunity,” which to your point and Isabella’s point is really what any of us want. Diane to close this conversation – and I certainly hope you don’t see me as being ungrateful. I mean, you’ve helped build Summit School and you wrote this book that helps parents and happened to catch Bill Gates’s attention among other folks. So I’m not ungrateful for the things that you have done up till now… but what’s next?
Diane Tavenner: No, I appreciate as someone who believes deeply in a learning organization, that’s the most important question always, because we need to keep pushing ourselves. Wow. Well, it’s such a good question. I think a couple of the really interesting things that we’re working on at Summit that I think are the next, we’re really thinking about teacher preparation as well as school leader preparation. And we’ve got a couple of pilot programs along those lines and those experiences that are much more project based and self-directed in the way that we have done for our students. So those are exciting what’s next. Then some really early work on post high school, and so if K-12 education is in need of the aligned school framework, I think higher Ed maybe is even in more need. And we didn’t spend any time there, but I think you and I both know there’s a lot of issues. And so, we’re wondering if Summit has something to contribute there, and we’re in the early stages of exploring that.
Chris Riback: Diane, thank you. Thank you for your time and thank you obviously for the work that you have done for kids and parents for families.
Diane Tavenner: Thank you. This has been quite a pleasure. Thank you.
More from Turnaround on this topic:
- Part 1: How Summit Schools is Helping Students Stay on Course During the Pandemic
- The 180 Podcast: Coronavirus: Keeping Our Children And Ourselves Safe, With Pamela Cantor, M.D.
- The 180 Podcast: How to Parent in a Pandemic: A Conversation with Dr. Pamela Cantor
- Michael Horn: A Time for Disruptive Innovation in Education
- Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Ph.D: A Recipe for Thriving in Stressful Times
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