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Social Justice in Education and the iPhone X

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By Sajan George, Founder & Chief Executive Officer for Matchbook Learning

There are numerous innovative education models that have launched in the past 10 years and likely even more in the next 10 years. These new models are borne from the frustration of our historic and current education system that was designed during the industrial age. The system was designed to address a singular set of outcomes (college entry) by controlling a finite set of inputs (students, seat-time or time spent in the classroom, and curriculum and assessments).  This "standardization" of inputs to create a hopefully standard or uniform outcome came from the factories of the industrial age which did the same with raw materials that were converted to predictable finished goods and services.

New innovation models are introducing new levels of customization and personalization needed to address a much wider subset of inputs (learning styles, learning strengths, learning deficiencies, social and emotional gaps and opportunities, mindsets and habits, poverty, special needs, English language learners, trauma, etc.) and a potentially larger subset of outputs (college entry, college completion, vocational non-college pathways, job skills, etc.).

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This wider acceptance of "variable inputs" has a corollary benefit that for many education entrepreneurs may be the most compelling argument of seeking innovative ways to educate students: social justice.  What exactly is social justice in an education context? Justice is defined as the "establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law." Adding the word "social" in front of justice indicates that rules of law do not necessarily have to be broken in order for something socially unjust or unfair to have happened.  Social justice therefore is defined as justice or fairness with respect to  "the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society."  What if innovative education models better served homeless children, children suffering from the traumatic effects of poverty, minority children, children whose native language is not English, special education children, overage and under-credited students, students in foster care... all children?  If such innovative models did so, they would be more socially just or more effective in distributing future wealth, opportunities, and privileges within our society.  

What does any of this have to do with the new Apple iPhone X, as the title of this blog post suggests?

This weekend I went into the Apple store and bought the new iPhone X.  One of the interesting things I noted besides my heart palpitations over the retail price of this device was that it had no "home" key and in fact had no keys or buttons anywhere on the face of the device.  This was a little disorienting in playing with the device in the store. However, by the time I took the device home, I was obviously committed to its use, and I found myself easily adjusting to this new competency (swipe up from the bottom of the device to go "home," swipe down from the top to bring up the control center, swipe and pause to see multiple tabs or apps).  The commitment of owning the phone fired up my learning curve (likely in ways that only Apple foreknew) and led to a seamless learning and adoption experience.

At Matchbook Learning we just finished a two week fall break, our first break after launching an innovative and yet challenging restart of a previously low-performing K-8 public school in Indianapolis.  The first couple of months of a school turnaround/charter restart can feel like a roller coaster of emotion that comes with replacing an old culture with a completely new one: a new vision, leadership, staff, structures, routines, habits, and mindset.  There may not be any harder assignment in public education than trying to turn around an entire school at once. Our days have been long and our staff were tired and ready for fall break.

Coming back after fall break, however, rather than bracing ourselves for the emotional headwinds of restoring and renewing children, there seemed to be a noticeable difference in the air, less resistance in the school climate. Not only have we noted a lower number of behavior incidents, but also a marked increase in the quality of individual conversations with individual students who were previously closed off from engaging with our staff.  

I cannot say for sure, but I suspect something happened when our students came back after break.  They saw that we were committed to them, realized we were not going anywhere. Our commitment to students is unlocking our relationships with them which in turn is unlocking what they can and will learn from us.   Once that commitment is both understood and accepted, learning begins to unlock just as my experience in trying to learn how to use the iPhone X in the Apple store as a potential customer paled when compared to how I learned to use it at home as a committed owner.  

Justice, be it social or legal, requires more than good design.  At the heart of justice is fairness, and at the heart of fairness is kindness. Kindness to be sustained over the longer term requires a kind of committed relationship.  When learning is designed within relationships denoted by such commitment, it cannot help but occur.

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Photo by Devon Janse van Rensburg on Unsplash
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