by Harold C. Lyon, Jr.
Copyright Harold C. Lyon 2008, all rights reserved.
RESEARCH EVIDENCE ON THE VALUE OF MENTORING
In working for over a decade as Director of Education for the Gifted & Talented in the U.S. Department of Education, we discovered that one of the most effective interventions for education of this target group is a mentorship. I also worked as a consultant to the White House Task Force on the Gifted and Talented in 1968 when we interviewed a sample of the Country’s most gifted achievers including Nobel and Pulwitzer Prize winners, astronauts, and famous inventors and authors of important works. We asked each this question: “What made the biggest difference in your life?” Interestingly, all had basically the same answer. Some coach, teacher or other respected adult had taken off their rank and status and built an intimate one-on-one human relationship with them, encouraging them to step out and take risks and attempt things they would never have tried without this encouragement. These mentors had, not only exceptional capability in a particular subject matter, but also possessed certain nurturing traits. Studies of exceptionally successful people reveal that those who had mentors gained a higher degree of success than those without mentors in all measures of success including the following:
a). Earned more money
b). Achieved a higher education at a younger age
c). Were more likely to follow a career plan and, in turn, sponsor more protégés than those who did not have mentors.
d). Published more works
e). Made greater contributions to their career fields than others
f). Had greater career satisfaction
In particular, women entering professional career fields need mentors. Studies of successful women (unpublished study by Jane Walters, Ph.D. 1981) reveal that they often had several mentors (usually men) and that they, in turn, became mentors for several protégés (usually women). There appears to be an interesting multiplier effect in mentorship. Those who have them tend to perpetuate the concept by becoming mentors. Certainly, this has important implications for education and all professions.
TRAITS OF THE SUCCESSFUL MENTOR OR TEACHER
The empirical research studies over a 25 -year period by Aspy and Roebuck, as presented in earlier chapters, concluded that certain specific traits are present in the most successful teacher-mentors. These traits, when present in a mentor or teacher, correlate with the following student outcomes:
a). Significantly higher achievement scores
b). Significantly more creative (divergent thinking ) responses
c). Lower absenteeism
d). Both student and teacher have higher morale and enjoy what they are doing
e). Young students (1st and 2nd graders) reflect significant I.Q. gains
f). Teachers with these traits have higher energy levels at the end of a week of teaching than those without these traits.
The traits occur naturally in some individuals while others, who are willing to learn, tend to be trainable in the traits. (Elementary school teachers, however, were found to be much easier to train in these traits than university faculty!)
So we have found that the following traits tend to be present not only in the most successful counselors, psychotherapists, and teachers, but also in successful mentors.
a). Empathic understanding:the ability to put oneself in the other's shoes and grasp a situation from his viewpoint.
b). Genuineness: the ability to be a somewhat "transparent" or a congruent individual with strengths and weaknesses, instead of a “perfect” person appearing to have all the answers. The genuine mentor has what I call "natural authority" as opposed to "status authority." Natural authority is earned by sharing in a learning experience with a colleague, the student. Status authority comes from standing behind your titles, degrees or a podium, filling up the inferior students with your superior knowledge.
c). Prizing: this is high positive regard or caring about the student as a unique individual with unique feelings and experiences each of whom who may have a unique style of learning.
When these three traits are present in the mentor something else develops: Trust. The student grows to trust the mentor and knows that the mentor is not there to evaluate or catch him up in his mistakes or faults, but to support him, to contribute to him in his skills and person-hood, to be his advocate. Mentors with these traits foster learning significantly greater (and enjoy the process) than those without these traits. These traits were found to be even more important than competence in the subject matter.
"I'm a topnotch physician. Why should I learn to be a good teacher?" Research shows that physicians spend approximately 80% of their time teaching -- teaching not only medical students, but teaching colleagues plus the non-trivial job of teaching patients how to change their life styles. In addition to medical school faculties needing to be effective mentor/teachers in order to pass on their skills and knowledge to students and patients, there is another pressing reason for physicians to be more effective learning facilitators. You want your students to live long enough and be effective enough to practice what you are teaching them. The suicide and substance abuse statistics among young people in the medical profession give stark testimony to the cost and the numbers who are lost to the profession.
AN EFFECTIVE MODEL FOR MENTORING INTERACTIONS
A simple and efficient interaction model for the meeting between mentor and student, particularly in a busy clinical setting, is the Get, Give, Merge & Go model.
Get: When meeting with your student, attend to him or her the way research shows is most effective for physician-patient interactions: eye contact, squared off face-to-face, leaning forward, listening and responding affectively and cognitively.
Give: Communicate that you received (empathic understanding) his communication and genuinely give in a constructive and caring manner your best thoughts and feelings concerning the matter.
Merge: Reach consensus on your separate views in terms of what should be done -- formulate a plan.
Go: Act on the plan. Do what you say you will. Follow up to see if it meets the need.
THE FUNCTIONS OF THE MENTOR
a). Teacher: to enhance the student's skills and professional development.
b). Sponsor: to facilitate the student's entry and advancement in the profession by opening doors through your influence and by providing opportunities for exceptional experiences.
c). Host and guide: to welcome the initiate into a new professional and social world and acquaint him with the values, customs, resources and cast of characters.
d). Exemplar role model: to model through your own virtues, achievements and way of living.
e). Counselor: to provide moral and counseling support in times of stress and crisis.
f). Parent analogue: to support and facilitate the realization of the "dream."
The traits of the successful mentor are an ideal model. In reality no one mentor practices or has them available all the time. We do the best in our unique manner with the gifts we have. Our genuineness is expressed in our human imperfection. But we as mentors use what we have to promote, stimulate, and encourage our students.
AN EXPERIMENT IN MENTORING AT DARTMOUTH MEDICAL SCHOOL
In 1986, I was invited by the Chair of the Dartmouth Medical School Department of OB/GYN to help him address a problem. In repeated evaluations of the third year clerkship rotation in this department, the students had consistently rated the OB/GYN rotation significantly lower than all the other clerkships in the medical field. He wanted to know why. I told him I’d help him find out why, but only if he’d agree to take my recommendations to improve the clerkship. He agreed and I began to spend time with the third year students to see if I could find answer. It didn’t take long.
After getting to know some of the students, it became apparent that in this clerkship students were fearful of asking faculty questions – a very poor environment for productive teaching and learning. Several faculty had a reputation of putting down students who asked questions. The students, anxious to have good ratings in the clerkship upon which hinges their acceptance for competitive assignments as first year Residents, became quickly conditioned to shut up rather than probe faculty with questions. Upon reporting my findings to the department chair, he immediately wanted to know the names of the offending faculty and take action, which I refused. Instead I proposed a faculty development paradigm, as below, but with a gradual introduction of a mentor program, which he approved.
In truth, there were only a few faculty members who seemed to genuinely care about medical education, most seeing the students as taking their valuable time away from their medical practice. This attitude had been reinforced by a new executive in the hospital – fresh out of Harvard Business School, but ignorant of the medical field – who had decided to publish a monthly roster of faculty who had generated the most income from seeing patients. Some faculty achievers, who were proud of being in the top ten, were competitively processing patients like cattle, but earning lots of income for the hospital, much to the delight of this new executive. After meeting with him, and finding that he would not budge from his financial incentive plan, I helped to generate a top-ten list of the faculty who had done the most teaching and mentoring, to counter-act the effect of rewarding only those who processed the most patients.
The clerkship director was one of the outstanding faculty members who seemed to develop excellent relationships with students. In addition two others were genuinely empathic teachers, one of whom was only a nurse-midwife, low on the medical heirachy, as was I, as a non-physician. (Non-physicians often have to prove themselves to MDs.) I went to each of these three and enlisted them to be the first mentors for our experimental program. We decided each could mentor 3 students or a total of nine which was 10% of the class. I cautioned them rather then evaluate to see their mentor role as advocate, role model, host and guide. I then randomized the students and took 9, 5 female and one male. These faculty became excited about this new role.
At the end of the clerkship we were all eager to see how the students rated the OB/GYN rotation. Amazingly, those students with mentors rated the rotation higher than any other rotations and significantly higher than those without mentors. (Several comments from those without mentors were complaints that some students had mentors and they didn’t) The results were so encouraging that we expanded to 50% of the class having mentors, though initially I had some difficulty recruiting mentors who I was busy training in short informal one-hour training sessions. At the end of the next rotation the results were similar. The 50% of the students with mentors rated the OB/GYN rotation significantly higher than those without. I took the results to the department chair and he was ecstatic about the results and wanted to expand immediately to then entire class.
Serrendipity happened. The faculty were becoming excited about the mentor role in a way they had not been motivated as teachers. As I rotated some faculty in and then out of the mentor role, to give others a chance at this new popular challenge, faculty began coming to me to ask if they could become mentors and those who were did not want to relinquish the role. One OB/GYN whose husband had been a mentor came to me in confidence saying that her husband was so disappointed that he was not renamed a mentor and was wondering if he had not done a good job since I had replaced him to give another faculty member a chance. I explained to her that he had done a great job and that I merely wanted to give other faculty the experience. This was my signal that all faculty who wished to be mentors could be.
We put on the student evaluation form a statement as follows: “Name the three faculty members you feel contributed most to the quality of your learning experience. Give specific reasons." Interestingly the same three faculty members names kept coming up in the student evaluations. I drafted a letter for the chair to send to these three faculty members acknowledging their excellent teaching. At first the chair was reluctant to single out these three as he felt this acknowledgment for a minority of three would be discouraging to the rest of the faculty. I convinced him to send the letters and within a week two of the faculty had the letters framed and hung them on their office walls along with their various diplomas! Acknowledgment of excellent teaching is powerful!
When we looked at the student evaluations of the OB/GYN clerkship we were amazed that it had gone from the lowest rated clerkship to the highest as a result of the mentor intervention. What’s more was the new motivation among faculty to care about and work one-on-one with students! A transformation had occurred as a result of establishing a mentor program!
These results led me to design a faculty development paradigm, as below, using a mentor program as its center piece. I am now implementing a similar paradigm in two German Medical Universities which are going through dynamic curricula reform a circumstance which always generates the need for faculty development.
FACULTY DEVELOPMENT PARADIGM
Designed for a medical school department
1. Seek self-selected/nominated small group of faculty with motivation for improvement. (such as our mentor experimental group)
2. Interview to determine where each is in relation to his/her teaching. (A "medical history" of their teaching, teacher-training background, etc.)
3. Delineate teacher-physician goals for his/her teaching. Assist them in making estimates of improvements they would like in their teaching competencies. Have them make a diagnosis of their perception of their teaching.
4. Do a diagnosis of their teacher-physician actual teaching by direct observation. These can be analyzed and evaluated using the Flander's Interaction Analysis, Carkhuff's "ROPES-Tell/Show/Do Matrix" and an assessment of the presence in their classroom of the traits of the successful teacher shared earlier in this book, empathy, prizing, and genuiness. This diagnosis is not an evaluation but it will determine for any course or lecture:
a. The amount of teacher talk (the average class contains 80%).
b. The amount of student talk (the average class has 10% plus 10% silence and/or confusion; usually more learning takes place when there is substantial student talk.)
c. The number of questions asked by the teacher. (Certain kinds of questions lead to thinking on the part of students whereas lecturing usually leads only to memory or less. Less than 10% of the average class is spent in questioning.)
d. The amount of praise used by the teacher.
e. The amount of time devoted to problem solving by the teacher.
Also the teaching can be diagnosed on a 15 step "Tell/Show/Do" Matrix which will reveal to the faculty member some new easy to uses steps in organizing their teaching. (80% of teachers use only 2 of the 15 steps found in 25 years of research to be present in the most effective teaching.
All of these measures are descriptive to the teacher rather than evaluative and, hence, tend to be relatively non-threatening. They simply describe or diagnose the events in the classroom interaction. This analysis is shared with the teacher-physician.
5. After providing the teacher-physician feedback about his/her teaching, I sit down with him/her and share their diagnosis and compare that to the research results of both the average and the most effective teachers. The teacher is then asked to reevaluate his/her goals in regard to his/her perception of teaching skills he/she wants to acquire. If changes are made his/her goals are revised.
6. Aspy and Roebuck, in very respectful research in education over the past 25 years, have found that the following eight principles result in the most effective teaching:
a. The teachers diagnose the learners' entry-level skills. (The Review step in 15 step matrix.)
b. Teachers ensure motivation by relating content to learners' real- worlds. (Overview
c. Teachers emphasize skill development. (Presentation and Exercise steps)
d. Teachers facilitate skill applications. (Summary step)
e. Teachers facilitate skill transfers. (Summary step)
f. Teachers use multi-sensory methods (Tell-show-do steps)
g. Teachers respond to learners' feelings.
h. Teachers respond to and generate learners' thinking.
i. Teachers have empathy toward students
j. eachers like or prize students
k. Teachers are genuine or congruent in the classroom, not trying to be perfect or someone they are not
7. The teacher-physician who wants to change must help design a learning program which will take him from where he is to where he wants to be. This step involves dividing the learning tasks into incremental units which can be completed and will lead to the learning goal. If, for instance, the teacher-physician decides to decrease his lecturing from 80% to 50%, this can be accomplished most effectively by trying to reduce it by 5% per week: 75%, 70%, 65%, etc. rather than making the entire change in one large dose. The percents of teacher talk (lecture) represent goals, and the teacher-physician will have to learn other behavior to take the place of the lecture which he had formerly employed. In this case he might increase his question asking and his praising/encouraging behavior by 5% a week and this would mean that the time devoted to lecturing would have to diminish by 5% per week. There are unlimited variations of teacher behavior which might be employed in the classroom. The salient point is that a teacher-physician who wishes to improve his classroom instruction can do so through systematic training.
Any department or school should be equipped to help willing teachers become more effective teachers through the process described here. All that is needed is an audio tape recording (or personal observation) of any course of instruction which represents the faculty member's teaching, and a detailed diagnosis of that teaching can accurately be made, followed up by meeting with faculty and sharing the diagnosis, revising teaching goals, and a program of change developed and carried out. Such a program should begin with a small cadre of volunteers. Interest will grow in developing teacher competency gradually as respected members of the faculty get involved and excited about the process.
Additionally, small incentives need to be established by policy makers. For example, on days when faculty are supervising in the clinic or teaching, their secretaries should be instructed to reduce patient workloads. Additionally, reports which shows how much money each physician has generated in patient fees should have added to it the number of hours of student teaching/supervision each faculty member has achieved, thus giving status and at least, equal billing to the importance of quality teaching as is given to revenue generating. Only when top policy makers begin to take such steps will education begin to gradually assume the importance in the medical setting that it deserves. This is what the national General Education of the Physician (GPEP) report was suggesting in its Recommendation 6 (under Conclusion 5: Enhancing Faculty Development): Providing Institutional Leadership."Experience indicates that the commitment to education of deans and departmental chairmen greatly influences the behavior of faculty members in their institutions and their departments. By their own attitudes and actions, deans and departmental chairmen should elevate the status of the general professional education of medical students to assure faculty members that their contributions to this endeavor will receive appropriate recognition."
The process outlined above has been employed successfully in teacher-training programs from elementary, secondary, and college (including medical school) faculties. Research on these programs has indicated a) that teachers can change their behavior, b) that students learn more, and c) that students attend class more frequently.
Perhaps we educators have failed physicians just as we have failed our fellow educators. We now have 25 years and over 200,000 teacher-hours of solid empirical research which shows what makes the effective teacher. We also have evidence that we can train the motivated teacher or mentor in these skills in a relatively short period of time. What we have not done well is to share this knowledge.
It is also possible that teacher-physicians may fail themselves by not availing themselves of the procedures we know work for teacher -training. The decision is in physicians' hands just as those of their patients are often in their hands. The stakes are high for patients if they do not avail themselves of physicians' services. But perhaps they are even higher for physicians who, as teachers of future physicians, have in their hands the health and well-being of future generations.
It takes incredible courage to risk venturing out beyond the structure of society, beyond the support of the rational beyond the boundaries of our finite games. Yet every new idea, every great discovery or invention, every true transformation, was discovered or created because someone was willing to risk the unknown, the untried -- to find a way different from society’s way. In our studies on gifted individuals, we found that behind the scenes were mentors, encouraging and supporting them to risk thinking independently. This requires going from environmental support where one is dependent upon approval from external sources to self support where one’s approval comes from within.
Years ago, I had the privilege of spending several days in Florence, Italy, with R. Buckminster Fuller, who was given the unique rare opportunity to “think aloud” for 8 hours on his feet at a chalk board. As the usual presentation lecture hour passed, Buckminister Fuller, having all the time he wanted, became more and more animated – like a child discovering – as his mind began exploring new unknown ground leading, while a small group of us watched in awe. Animatedly, he used piece after piece of chalk, oblivious to all except the excitement of new vistas, explaining out-loud where he might be going – somewhere out beyond the limits of his and certainly our minds. Some years later while on the est board, I also had the privilege of some days with Bucky and Werner Erhard, as these two great minds played off each other back and forth.
Bucky said that he deserved very little credit for his many discoveries which number in the hundreds including a new revolutionary concept of Synergetic Geometry, the geodesic dome, and many other unique contributions to architecture, poetry, mathematics and philosophy. All that knowledge is just up there, Bucky claimed, for any of us to reach for and grasp. He claimed that the slowest child could be as smart as the brightest and the brightest could be incredibly brilliant if we would remove society’s restrictive bonds and put an empathic mentor in his life. Bucky said that the only credit he deserves is for making the decision to think for himself seventy-three years ago. At that time as a young man he considered himself a “cast out” from society -- a “throw-away” who had failed financially. As he contemplated suicide it dawned on him that since he was expendable, he had nothing to lose and he might as well launch a lifetime experiment of thinking for himself, of daring to venture out beyond the mind. He committed himself to finding out what he, as one individual, could do to contribute to the entire human family. His life and discoveries are a tribute to that commitment and to his genius.
I’ve become an avid believer in miracles in the past few years. St. Augustine said, “Surely he who does not believe in miracles will never participate in one.” So the first step is to dare to believe in the unbelievable. Have the courage to act and see that you matter. Mentors are the best facilitators for that kind of independent behavior.
Before a miracle occurs, it appears impossible. For example, there is no way scientifically to predict a butterfly from a caterpillar, nor do you see caterpillars running and jumping off logs trying to fly. If they tried that hard they’d never be still long enough to grow a cocoon. But after the miracle occurs, we accept it quite readily; we even find a linear explanation for it.
Yet in everyday life, in society’s structure, in our rational world, in our classrooms, we have no way to hold miracles. We leave no room for our students to think for themselves, to reach, as Bucky Fuller suggests, for the answers. Most of these answers are to be found in our experience which is the raw material of science. Mentors can help open the doors to these answers. According to Bucky Fuller “Science is an attempt to set in order the facts of experience.” Experience is composed of making mistakes and having successes -- trial and error behavior. All failure is an opportunity to “break through” to new discovery. This means being willing to risk making a fool of yourself. You do this every time you do something different from the “approved” way, or every time you have the courage to be “outrageous”. Each of us lives in a box limiting ourselves drastically with set responses or roles, most of which we have learned are appropriate according to society. Our minds -- incredible as they are, are boxes which often limit us to a survival level. Some of the most common boxes are “Be careful”, “be smart”, “be approved of” (I was stuck in this one for much of life), “be a man”, “be dignified”. Those acts which are void of courage will never shape you. They will just keep you comfortably in your box. For example, if you spend your life being careful with people, you’ll never really know them...nor will you really make a difference. I spent a lot of my life being careful with people and not knowing them. Life is too short for that. My fear of looking bad was much bigger than my not looking bad or even my looking bad. The teacher who is trying to look perfect -- as though he or she has all the answers -- is filled with fear of looking bad and is not often a good mentor. It is far better to look bad through risking, than to be sterilized and immobilized by the caution that comes from fear of looking bad. Helen Keller said: “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”. And yet when you step out into the unknown, as every great inventor, every great discoverer of something new has done, you won’t have the support, the structure, the agreement necessary for comfort (and for arrogance). But a mentor can provide that support.
But stretching out into the unknown is essential to the growth of a person just as is food, or nurture. We either grow or we die. It is true from the smallest cell, to the complex human being, to the entire universe. (A brilliant book on this subject is George Lock Land’s Grow or Die - the Unifying Principle of Transformation. Children yearn to explore; to make a difference”. “Achievement,” according to Werner Erhard, “is as far out as you can get in a world in which you don’t make a difference.” Achievement and conformance are all we ask from our students. We give them no opportunity to go farther than achievement, or to make a difference in the world. Only the strongest, through their own declaration of independence, survive having their creativity killed off by the fourth grade, if not sooner.
In the last half of the eighteenth century from a relatively small population, our country produced incredible leaders -- Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, Monroe and many others. Compare that to the past seventy years. Why, with so much larger a population are we not developing higher caliber leaders? I believe it is partly because we are so highly specializing -- building our “boxes” smaller and tighter, and these “boxes” are constructed in our homes and in our schools. Many of our gifted people now go on directly from college into graduate school or one of the professional universities. There they are powerfully indoctrinated in “the limits” of their professional “boxes”. They “adjust” to what a good professional, scientist or scholar is like, compromising their ideals daily, and trading off initiative for respectability, for acceptance, for conformance to “the right way.” This leaves little opportunity for leaders to grow into the needed “breakthroughs”, (mistakes are what lead to such “breakthroughs”). We are very willing to stand off and criticize the leader or the risks taken, but no one seems to want to nurture or educate the leader. It’s somehow unpopular to lead or to be a leader in a so-called free society. We associate leaders with power, profit, efficiency and other distasteful images. We are tired of autocratic leaders who treat us as inferiors. At the same time, we shun human leaders who cry or show vulnerability. We need leaders who are willing to risk making decisions across the broad spectrum of life -- who can be bigger than our small problems. In short, we need leaders who can create a context of the world working for everyone -- who can have true power rather than force. Force is exercised only when there is no power. Real power is the ability to empower others to make a difference in the world.
At the same time that we are suffering from this leadership vacuum, our country is facing another perplexing demography crisis as we become an aging society.
James Carse, describes this in other words. I refer you to Carse’s small book, Finite and Infinite Games – A vision of Life as Play and Possibility (Ballentine publishing Group, 1986). He suggests that there are at least two kinds of games, finite and infinite. Finite games are played for the purpose of winning and infinite games for the purpose of continuing the play. If a finite game is won, it must come to an end when someone has won. But infinite games continue on. All the finite games we play are limited by boundaries, have definite rules for play, have a beginning and an end, and have winners and losers. But the class of games called infinite games have no beginning or ending, have no losers, are without boundaries and rules, and have as their object, the continuing of the game. To address the problem of inhuman education in the world, we must make a shift from the finite games we are so used to playing, to an infinite game which is not limited by boundaries, but which opens to the horizon and beyond and enables us to better consider the power and cause of an idea’s time to come.
Contexts are created by the self, out of nothing. When you stop identifying yourself as a thing, as a position, and start experiencing your self as the context, as the space, for your life - when you start experiencing that you are the context in which the content of your life occurs - you will automatically and necessarily experience responsibility for all the content in your space. You will experience that you are whole and complete and infinite -- that you are aligned with other selves, with the self.
When you experience your self as infinite space, you create contexts from which you can come into the world. One such context could be the end of inhumane education on our planet. Another context would be a life of love.
You may not yet clear about what context is - at least, not how it works - so I’ll use an example. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy initiated a context when he told Congress: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
By creating the context, “A man on the moon in 10 years, “ Kennedy transformed space travel from merely a good idea - which had not succeeded despite considerable attempts, the feasibility of which had been questioned, argued, and discussed - into an idea whose time had come.
The result of what Kennedy did can be understood by analogy. It is as if he created a building named, “A man on the moon in 10 years, “ and inside that building he put offices for all the various ideas, positions, notions, content and people that had to do with space flight. The first office inside the front door of the building in 1961 would have been called, “It can’t be done.” This office would have been inhabited by the skeptics and cynics.
A content or position is threatened by any opposite position. Given two opposing positions, only one can survive. There is a winner and a loser. On the other hand, a context gives space to, it literally allows, it even encourages, positions that are apparently opposite and this creates an “infinite game” to use Carse’s words. . In fact, the most important position in a newly-created context is the position which appears to oppose the context.
It is important to realize that opposing positions actually contribute to establishing a context. In the case of the civil rights movement during the 1960’s, for example, all those people who opposed civil rights for blacks actually contributed to creating a national dialogue that demonstrated to the country that the issue could no longer be ignored.
I happened to have had the honor of being the aide de camp to the commanding general of the 2nd Infantry Division which was ordered to go to Oxford Mississippi to enforce the Federal Court order to integrate James Meredith into the University, and also later to carry Alabama Governor George Wallace off the steps of the University of Alabama in Birmingham. We put up road blocks around “Ol’ Miss” and stopped hundreds of cars from neighboring states and communities carrying people – some of them professionals -- with guns, knives, and explosives coming to defend the “honor of the South” against us Federal invaders. We used tear gas against the rioters, though we never fired a shot against an American citizen in the these encounters. All those people, every government official in the South who stood in the doorway of a school and prevented black children from entering had been a cause, a part of the persistence, of the problem, of the oppression. After the creation of a context - “equal rights and dignity for blacks” - the very same action that had been a part of the problem’s persistence became an action contributing to the end of legal discrimination against minority races. Then, every such action contributed to an increased awareness of the issue, to the passage of civil rights legislation, and to the gradual change in attitude that ultimately evidenced itself in the recognition that civil rights was an idea whose time had come.
In a newly-created context the most important position is the position, “It can’t be done,” as pessimistic as that may sound. That is the first and most important content to be processed, to be realigned. When you create a context that context generates process; process in turn grinds up content, it changes content so that it becomes aligned with the context.
In building a “A man on the moon in 10 years,” the skeptics and cynics were working on “It can’t be done” within the context of doing it, so that instead of being a threat or a stop to the goal, suddenly their skepticism and cynicism started contributing to the achievement of the goal.
“All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” Victor Hugo wrote. Context generates process. A contextually-generated process transcends the existing forces; it transforms those forces. A contextually-generated process aligns the existing forces within the context. It becomes a boundary-less infinite instead of a limited finite game. Then the aligned forces provide a condition of workability. Every action taken in a context is a fulfillment of, an expression of, and a manifestation of that context. The pessimism, the cynicism, the position, “It can’t be done,” are ground up by the process generated by the context, and are transformed into the material out of which the result is achieved. When an idea is transformed so that the apparently opposing idea actually validates and gives expression to the idea, then it is an idea whose time has come.
Pretty soon the it-can’t-be-done people became aligned. They were still skeptics (that’s their nature), they were still cynics (that’s their nature), but they were suddenly now cynical and skeptical … and in alignment with the context called “A man on the moon in 10 years.”
Then they just moved out of the way and the new office in the front of the building was: “You can’t put a man on the moon without this specific kind of metal and we don’t have this specific kind of metal.”
As we all know, the metals were invented and produced. Then what moved up was: “But you don’t know whether to do it with high technology or high energy.” We know that that one was resolved. The Russians said high energy. The United States said high technology. It didn’t make any difference. Within the context of putting a man on the moon in 10 years, either one of the solutions would have worked … since it was an idea whose time had come.
Unlike the problem of education, in which solutions already exist, there were no solutions to the problem of getting a man to the moon in 1961. President Kennedy created a context called “ A man on the moon in 10 years,” and out of that context, in which the question of feasibility was merely one of many positions within the context, came the workable solution: the Congressional approval, appropriations of money, technological breakthroughs, NASA, and ultimately, men on the moon. Before then, space travel was not possible because the attempts to make it real existed in a condition of unworkability.
In 1961, the people all the way in the back of the building called “A man on the moon in 10 years” were optimists. Much less than 10 years later they had the first office, the office of “It will be done.” In 1969, it was done.
The position “It will be done” and the position “You can’t do it” are merely positions within the context of “A man on the moon in 10 years” - or within the context of “The end of inhumane education on this planet in this decade.”
Only butterflies can explain how caterpillars came to fly.
The White House Task Force on the Education of the Gifted & Talented, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969.
Aspy D & Roebuck F: National Consortium for Humanizing Education Study, NIMH, 1970.
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