At Educon this past weekend, I had many amazing conversations with educators, people interested in education reform, wild-eyed evangelists and more.  But one of the most telling moments was when Gary Stager asked, “When did idealism become a negative adjective?  I tell my grad students- You’re 22- idealistic is exactly what you should be.”

Educon as an “education/technology” conference tends to attract people who are dedicated to making schools all they can be, and others who want to make schools different, but are constantly finding the “Yes, But” in every sentence.

I was left with the impression this weekend that may educators have become real pessimists, and have lost much of their idealism.  After hearing story upon story of teachers having success with students from poor homes, from rotten neighborhoods and the like, you could hear someone remark that that case was the exception to the rule.  It made me think- How many stories of success and learning in relatively impoverished environments do you need before you decide that these stories are not the outliers and the one offs, but actually evidence that children may have potential, even if the deck is stacked against them.

The problem with this viewpoint, of course, is it doesn’t allow you to give up.  It means you have to reach every child, and not just the easy ones, either.  It means you can’t write off the disruptive kid, because with the proper teacher or a more interesting project, that kid might really start to blossom.  If you can, instead, look at some kids as lost causes and assume that you can’t make a significant difference, you get permission to fail and permission to stop trying.

I learned this weekend the real meaning of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  Every time someone doesn’t expect a kid to achieve, every time we make a test easier so the passing rate goes up, every time we tell ourselves our school’s test scores are simply the fault of the proportion of ESL kids, or those with IEP’s,  we are short selling our kids and their potential.  We’re using grade inflation to mask any difficulties and let it masquerade as real progress, because that’s politically expedient.  Even if you have kids who don’t seem engaged, does that give you an excuse to stop trying to teach them?  Isn’t this just a way to let teachers off the hook from doing the really hard work required?

While programs like “Race to the Top” sound wonderful, a race also implies winners and losers rather than helping all boats to rise to the top.  I think we have to stop making education a competition. There’s a  competition between teachers and students, where teachers have to exert command and control over kids, and every psych experiment ever done has shown that no one learns well in a coercive environment.  The students push back, and there’s a giant tug of war going on where no one actually ever wins or moves forward.

I want teachers and students and parents to be idealistic about education.  We have to have high dreams and aspirations.  We may fall short of the “perfect goal” but if we never shoot for the target, we have no hope of ever even coming close.

Gary also quoted Seymore Papert, the father of educational computing and founder of the MIT Media Lab, as saying “It’s okay to worry about the work on Monday, as long as it’s also working towards what you need to do someday.”  We need to have the wide angle lens as well as the microscope working at all times, and keep an eye on the bigger mission.

The process of changing and improving education is difficult.  It’s something I’d love to see IDEO try to tackle, because rather that getting potshots from outside, I think education will only improve when people fully understand the problems from the inside out first.  And as long as we keep putting ridiculous pressure on our schools to meet relatively arbitrary standards in an arbitrary period of time, where we measure each classes achievement like a new set of widgets, rather than measuring an individual student’s growth over time, we keep educators locked in Maslowe’s basement, where they are constantly distracted with worry about the “food clothing shelter” aspects of school, and never have the time or the security to have truly higher aspirations of themselves or their students.

I am an idealist about education.  We have all the potential in the world.  We just have to be willing to harness it, to let go of the substantial fear that exists, and feel free to dream and experiment, and be willing to be wrong and try again, all the while keeping the best interests of the kid’s at heart.  It is possible.  It can be done.  But we have to be willing to be idealists, we have to be willing to be disappointed from time to time, and we have to be willing to dust ourselves off and try again as need be.

But mostly, we have to stop seeing Idealism as a pejorative, and instead, embrace it as the thing we should all aspire to become.