Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wine and Education

Recently I had the opportunity to go to the British Columbia School Superintendent's Association Conference in Vancouver, BC.  At the conference, there were more than 450 District Superintendents, Principals, Vice Principals, Treasurers, and students in attendance to listen to presenters speak about personalizing learning for students in the 21st century in a British Columbia context.

Amongst the speakers was Charles Leadbeater, a renowned expert on innovation in various areas in the private and public sector.  He talked about a number of different things including the changing face of innovation with social media, the evolution of innovation from the contributions of few to the contributions of many, and the scaling up of innovation from small pockets here and there to large scale implementation of innovation throughout a particular sector.  He also described a series of thought provoking analogies;  while each was interesting, the one that piqued the attention of the large group on a Friday night after a long week was not difficult to pick out.

What education can learn from wine.

Dr. Leadbeater began to describe the French wine industry and the process of selecting a suitable bottle from a long list of French wines that one might experience were they to go to a posh and exclusive French restaurant.  He described the oft-intimidating process of the sommelier coming with a list that might have several dozen different varieties and brands to a person that might have little or no experience with wines.  Having gone through this experience on many occasions myself, I really identified with the strategy that he described:  "One doesn't pick the top three for fear that one might be seen as cheap just as one tends not to pick the bottom three because they are far too expensive.  Instead, the typical person blindly picks something somewhere in the middle, with little knowledge or proffered advice as to whether that bottle would go well with their particular meal."

I can identify with this.  I certainly have felt intimidated by what appears to be an expert who speaks in terms that I have little or know comprehension about.  Truth be known, I just hope that I get a nice wine that tastes palatable.

Leadbeater went on to describe what happens when the bottle shows up.   It is often non-descript, with a label in a different language and very little information about the contents.   I will admit (with a bit of a red face) that at times in the past, if the bottle was of a particularly dark color, that I have wondered whether I have actually ordered a red or a white wine right up to the point where I pour it in my glass!  He talked about how most people do not have the time to research and figure out whether a particular variety compliments their meal.  The French had the wine market cornered, the language of wine cornered, and did little to help their consumers because they didn't have to.  France and good wine were synonymous, and if you wanted to know what variety went with your lamb, you needed to go do your research and find out.

With many people nodding in the crowd, Mr. Leadbeater then talked about the Australian wine industry, and how they had stormed on to the wine scene with a very different approach.  If one were to look at their typical wine bottles, one would find a simple description of the wine AND some useful tips about which meals that particular wine might go well with.  Having Chicken Korma? Try me!  As a result, he contended, Joe Q. Public in a hurry on their way home from work would rather read a label and grab a bottle of the grape from Oz rather than wander aimlessly up and down the multitude of aisles filled with French wine trying to determine what was going to go well with the salmon they purchased from Costco.  This really struck a chord with me.

He then related this to education.  He cautioned the group about the current system and methodologies around education might be considered to be analogous to French wine.  In BC, education might be considered by many to be a lexicon for quality, with a proven track record of success.  However, for many, it might be shrouded in a dark bottle without a description of what it might actually 'go with'.  It might be considered to be described in terms that people outside of education are not familiar with, and understood only by educational sommeliers--district administrators, principals, and teachers.  And he also highlighted the fact that our consumers (our students and parents) right now may be looking for something that is more easily understood, that is in clear and transparent packaging, and that is more applicable to what they need to succeed.

This resonated with me.  I realize that oftentimes, I speak in 'educationese', in terms that are puzzling (and sometimes outright offensive) to people in business, industry, the trades, or to the general public (including our students).  In order to create positive partnerships with our 'consumers', we need them to be very knowledgeable and informed about what we do at schools and the value of this education for our students as contributors to society.  We need to be able to clearly articulate the skills that kids are learning in our buildings and how these will be transferable not just to something such as post-secondary education, but to business, industry, the trades, or whatever our students may choose to do.  And perhaps most importantly, we need to articulate this for our students in our buildings TODAY.

The answers to the question "Why are we doing this?" can no longer be "because you need to know this", "because it is important", "because it's on the test", "because you need this to go to university", or "because I said so".  To use the wine analogy,  if we don't put our outcomes from our classes and our system into a transparent vessel with clear markings that everyone can understand, we run the risk of our students and parents looking to 'consume' their education from a 'bottle' (educational provider) that goes better with their chosen meal (career).  If we do personalize this 'consumption', we have a much greater chance of engaging our students in their learning at our schools.

A great presentation by Mr. Leadbeater, and if you have the chance to see him, I recommend you do.  He will stimulate your thinking about education, and perhaps about wine as well!

Cross-posted at Connected Principals

3 comments:

  1. In reading your post I thought about the power of language and it's power to include or exclude. Without a doubt, we need to use language that is inclusive and respectful of students and parents.
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