April 21, 2021

The Board President of IU8, Tom Bullington, and I have a great working relationship. I consider him as much as an education leader as I am. He shared something with me yesterday when he and I met for lunch that will show you why he is an education leader.

To set the stage for what I am going to share, it is important to know what Tom and I talked about before he showed me his thinking about education. The lunch meeting was a “catch up” session so I could get his input on a few things that are happening at the IU. The crux of the conversation was about the future of the IU. More specifically, we discussed how to create a future-focused vision for the next five years of the IU. We both had ideas of what the future will look like and how the IU can get there. One of the things I enjoy about talking with Tom is that we can “dream” while also staying grounded in the reality of the world we live in.

Toward the end of the lunch, Tom turns over his placemat and asks me if he had ever shared his theory of how the world works with me. Since he hadn’t, he sketched this out for me.

He started with a line.

This line represents when a child is born. Now what happens almost immediately are things that will limit the options that child has in their life. Most of these limitations are beyond the control of the child. Things like your race, poverty, where you were born, your parent’s social group, the quality of your school (and many more) acts as limits to a learner. When you take all of this into account, it forms a pyramid.

The line now looks like this, with the sides of the pyramid representing the limitations placed on the learner though their life.

Now, let’s pay attention to the top of the pyramid, where you see an oval.

This oval represents what Tom calls the “critical skills center.” This is what you are good at. Tom and I had been talking about how much fun it is to watch people that are good at their jobs. Watching a master at work is exciting and inspiring. Specifically, we talked about heavy equipment operators and how talented the good ones are at their jobs. My brother’s construction crew has a grader operator that can “grade to spec” a dirt platform the size of three football fields to within less than an inch to specifications without a laser level. That’s talent!

Tom’s point is that all of us should have that “critical skills center,” but there is a catch. The “catch” is that you have to be aware of, or accepting of, where you are in your life progression. If you do not accept that your skillset is “what it is,” at this particular time in your life then you will continually spin in the pyramid of limitations. However, once you understand and accept your critical skill center (and be purposeful in learning the skills you want and need to grow), the pyramid does something interesting.

Embracing what you are good at starts increasing your zone of possibilities available to you. People that are good at what they do understand that they are good at what they do start to have options available to them that empower them to move beyond the limitations earlier in their life.

Tom and I did not have time to get too deep into this, but since our conversation, I have a series of questions that I am posing to you as a school leader to think about.

  1. Does your school contribute to the limitation in the lower pyramid or work to prevent limitations?
    • If you think your school limits kids, then what are the processes and systems that contribute to the limits? How can you change those systems and processes?
    • How does your school prevent limitations of opportunities from creeping in and affecting kids?
  2. What role should schools have in both the lower and upper pyramids?

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

  • Tom Bullington nailed it! The critical skills center creates opportunities to enlarge the oval and increase the zone of possibilities. Dissecting and observing the journey of successful people supports Tom’s theory.

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