I wrote the following piece for ConversationEd. You can see it posted there today.  If you’re in the ed crowd, please take a minute to pop over there. Editor and creator Kathleen Jasper is starting the tough conversations. “Education is broken. We’re going to fix it.” Anyone who’s going to fix education is on my team. I had to repost here because of my deep love for Musashi…and the work Kathleen’s doing. 

Sometimes I have to step outside my little corner of the world to see where American education really shines. I spend so much time trying to improve, reform, address, fix, and help the mission as an educator–especially an educator interested in technology–that I fail to see the simple truths.

America doesn’t suck that bad after all.

Every nation has its strong and weak points. America, the data shows, has creativity and self-esteem. I tell my students, “This is fantastic. That means we’re a nation of people who can’t add or spell our own names but we feel good about it.”

Other countries beat us in the Three R’s hands down. I guess they wouldn’t be the 3 R’s in China. They’d be more like the 阅读,写作,算术. (reading, writing, math) Forgive my Chinese. It’s not great yet–I’m told I have no tone. I’m studying Mandarin so if America’s education implodes or the Chinese call in our debt, I can wish my new boss a 早安 (zao an–good morning). I think it’s important to be polite.

I went to a conference yesterday. I talked with a visiting scholar from another country. It left me thinking. She said she’d spent twelve years in the secondary classroom, and that school in her country was difficult to teach–it was noisy because class size topped forty. Teaching had to be done traditionally due to the huge class sizes. Blended learning and group work were quite out of the question. She eventually got tired and left. Now she teaches college. As a visiting scholar, she was shocked that American education didn’t have its cards in order as much as she thought.

“I thought America was this shining beacon of education. I thought you had your act together. All this talk about standards.” She was in favor of standards–something to hold the world in place.

On behalf of all Americans, I accepted the near compliment. The fact that anyone would think we’re the shining beacon of anything after the way the press treats us, then actually get on a plane to before realizing otherwise–that made me proud.

America, in addition to being tops in self-esteem, is also the best at marketing. We, who have literally invented and sold global phenomena like…holidays…can certainly sell a set of standards. “We bring you Santa Claus, Mother’s Day, and any other holiday Hallmark can create.” The American marketing machine exported St. Patrick’s Day to Ireland as a revelrie rather than a religious observation, and the Halloween we stole from the Druids spawned a sales event so momentous that it starts in summer and doesn’t stop till the last billion has been squeezed out on October 31st.

Of course we can package standards and present an image of national cohesion worldwide. “I thought at least you had your Standards,” my new acquaintance said.

I’m glad we look good on the world stage in this area. I’m tired of being the archetype dumb American. I want to be The American Who Kicks Ass At Something Other Than Obesity and Stupidity. And in all honesty, I have no issue with the Common Cores. That’s not my fight. They seem pretty reasonable to me–every time I teach a good unit it matches up with a ton of them. The best classes I teach have several from different fields.

The truth is I’ve been teaching to standards my whole not-too-long career. I’ve been given standards in Social Studies, History, Geography, Economics, Technology, Math and Literacy for good luck, and if there are any others I’ve missed, I’ll throw them in there, too. Every generation of policymakers has a different set of standards they favor. I think about this sometimes. Standards are good. Quality is good. And God help me for saying the word I feel is the most overused word in education, “rigor,” is good, too. But it’s a lot to consider. I wonder if we need so many standards after all.

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I’m getting older and more zen. I need things to be simple. I think I can take every standard I’ve ever used or may use in the future and boil them down to one: The Musashi Standard. Miyamoto Musashi is my favorite Japanese swordsman. He was born in the late 1500’s and won over sixty duels, which is a pretty big deal when someone’s trying to cut your head off.

As is the case for every great swordsman–and every great educator–he got tired of fighting. When you get tired of fighting you see the world a little differently. You see through the BS and hyperfocus on the one or two things that are really important. Musashi retreated to a cave to finish The Book of Five Rings. It’s a book about swordsmanship, but really it’s about life. Philosophy. Simplicity. My favorite quote, “Do nothing that is of no use.”

When I’m planning lessons, teaching class, or answering a student’s, “Miss, where am I going to use this?” I invoke The Musashi Standard. “Do Nothing That Is of No Use.” It’s so important, I’ve put it on some of my business cards. It’s a challenge, to be sure. Minds are such cluttered things, always going in so many directions at once. It’s easy to do useless things at all levels.

All the gadgets, apps, standards, and mobile devices in the world do not trump The Musashi Standard. I’ve found I can achieve greatness with a million standards or waste time with all of them, unless I superimpose The Musashi Standard on top. “Do Nothing that is of No Use.”

Using the Musashi Standard, my golden rule, helps me think how I can get to the next level, and how I can get students to there, too.

Realizing some of the nations I thought had their stuff together are in the same spot as me gives me great joy. I know we’re still in the race, if it’s a race after all. But wait a minute–racing other countries when we could be collaborating? Not useful. Musashi would say we should stop competing and join hands. We’ve got the global technology to do it.And that together we’d be much better than the sum of our parts.

Now, to move forward and get the job done.

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