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Igniting a Passion for Learning

As a recipient of the 2008 Malcomb Baldrige National Quality Award, there comes a responsibility to be an ambassador for the Baldrige criteria. This means a number of speaking engagements and quite a bit of time in the air and waiting on flights. During this time, I like to read and keep up with educational research. A book I started on a recent flight was Tom Friedman’s  Hot, Flat and Crowded. Friedman is one of my favorite writers. I do not always agree with his positions, however, I enjoy reading his editorials in the New York Times and I enjoy reading his books.

Friedman’s latest book starts with a powerful chapter that reflects how America has potentially lost its way since 9/11. Friedman documents three trends that are prevalent in our country;

1) post 9/11 isolation and fear;

2) “dumb as we wanna be” generation that he compares to a sub-prime nation that operates on a nothing down and no interest for 2 years mentality, and a nation that is more concerned about red state vs. blue state than collaboration to solve our problems; and,

3) A positive trend of nation building at home.

Friedman’s positive trend of nation building documents the vitality of the newest generation of young adults in America. I was connected to his comparisons in that I have two children that belong to this new generation. While the children are dramatically different, I see the hope and inspiration in their eyes. During the recent Presidential election, I have never seen the excitement and passion in such young voters. Friedman also sees this hope and inspiration. He says they want our country to matter again. They want to be summoned to come forth and do great things. They want to do “nation building” in our country to restore and revitalize something they cherish but feel has been degraded.

As an educator and as an American, I worry that we are leaving our children a huge mess that will need to be cleaned up. I feel as educators, we have gone through a sub-prime period. We have had a period where we were spending and borrowing our future for bells and whistles rather than maintaining a focus on the fundamentals of hard work and rigorous challenge of higher order thinking and problem solving.

Friedman says the winds changed on 9/11 and while the initial response of addressing safety was the right call, we have gone too far in building walls and blocking America’s position of leadership and hope in the world. Friedman cites the Chinese proverb - when the wind changes direction some build walls to block the wind and others build windmills to harness the energy of the wind.

In education, I believe we have built walls with No Child Left Behind. We have reacted to a period of wealth and prosperity where student achievement did not grow by building walls that have as their foundation standardized testing and a lack of innovation and creativity. However, I agree with Friedman that we certainly have a positive trend of nation building in America. I see hope for building windmills to harness the energy of a new generation of leaders. In education, these windmills are reflected by programs such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools. In North Carolina, we are seeing innovations in teacher and principal standards and training programs. In our school system we are seeing innovations everyday as teachers reflect on learning with students through the use of a Plan Do Study Act cycle. As I visit schools in our school system, I am seeing energy and hope that has not always been there.

Whether the new energy and hope are connected to a new leader at the national level or not, I know that America has always been able to reinvent itself. American education has always been able to reinvent itself. In times of greatest challenge, leaders emerge to help America reinvent itself. My challenge to each of you as school leaders is to build windmills rather than walls. Instill the hope in yourself and then spread that hope to the children and adults you come into contact with every day. Ignite the passion for learning within yourself and I am certain that you will find that passion for learning spreading to all those with whom you contact.

Terry Holliday

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