Time to Emerge from the Silo
by Myron Dueck
I grew up in a small Canadian farming community about an hour and a half north of Grand Forks, North Dakota. The landscape was pretty flat--I could’ve sung along with the Who: “I can see for miles and miles and miles.”
I came to like two notable landmarks that broke the monotony: grain elevators and farm silos. Most dictionaries cite two definitions for silos. One, of course, is the tall cylindrical farm feature that is used to store grain or silage--a feature of many cattle farms. The second, which also has ties to my community and its proximity to the Canada-US border, is the military connotation of a silo: the underground chamber used to store a guided missile and the equipment used to fire it. According to the Grand Forks Herald (2015), by the late 1960s, northeastern North Dakota was home to 300 nuclear silos. I was born in 1972, and like so many others in my generation, I was inundated with news stories and movies that allowed me to, “grow up strong and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.” Thanks, Freddie.
As I looked around for various definitions of silos, I came across a third, metaphoric definition. Beyond food storage for domestic bovines and apocalyptic subterranean nukes there is:
An isolated grouping, department, etc., that functions apart from others especially in a way seen as hindering communication and cooperation
Wait a second…this sounds much more related to my contemporary existence--education
It’s time for me to admit it: too much of my educational career has been spent in the ‘school silo’. “Isolated, functioning apart from others, hindering communication…” was I the model for that definition? Was my classroom bugged?! Sure, I’ve read books, watched documentaries, and engaged in many conversations that were ‘outside’ of education per se, but somehow my NORAD radar was not homed in on the array of themes and lessons from the ‘real world’ that were applicable to my role as an educator. I was shielded by the walls of my classroom and set in my scholarly ways.
In their fascinating and relevant book A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It's Everyone's Business by Barden and Morgan (2015), we’re challenged to identify and break our ‘path dependence’ in order to solve seemingly unsolvable problems and, well, make our constraints beautiful. The authors point out that ‘path dependence’ can be formal, such as the myriad ‘how-to’ manuals and long-standing protocols and procedures to which we all adhere. On the other hand, ‘path dependence’ can “exist in a more informal, pervasive sense of “the way we do things around here”—the learned best practices, processes, values data sources and partners that people pay attention to” (page 38). Breaking path dependence requires us to look outside for new ideas.
I suppose there is a sort of collision occurring in my thinking that prompted me to write this article now, in January of 2021.
In any event, I think we need to look outside our school walls a little more often, rethink our constraints, in order to overcome the challenges inside those walls. When feeling there is no way out of a gripping limitation, instead of repeating, ‘we can’t…we can’t…we can’t’, Barden and Morgan offer nine strategies using the phrase, ‘we can if…’. One of these approaches suggests we venture outside of the silo:
WE CAN IF . . . WE ACCESS THE KNOWLEDGE OF . . .
In my latest book from ASCD entitled, Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage, every chapter starts with an account of something outside of the education silo. One of those ideas would fall under the heading:
WE CAN IF . . . WE ACCESS THE KNOWLEDGE OF ADVERTISERS.
Take the ‘elevator pitch’--often defined as the encapsulation of an idea in time it would take to ride an elevator from one floor to another. Steve Jobs described Apple as “having the ability to take really complex technology and make it easy to understand and use by the end user” (Arthur, 2014). Imagine for a moment you were tasked with coming up with an elevator pitch for your classroom, department, school, or district and it had to be simple--a sentence or two. In 30 seconds or less, how would you sum up your purpose, your reason for being, your ‘why’? Perhaps we’d be tempted to launch into what we do--teach, conduct classes, offer extra-curricular activities. Terry O’Reilly, the host of the enlightening advertising podcast Under the Influence, would be quick to interrupt. O’Reilly argues that the most successful companies have figured out a few really important lessons, and all of them center on why they do what they do.
Here are three to consider:
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Airport Stories: Piloting Students Beyond the Silos | with Myron Dueck | 2.2.2021
Myron Dueck and the Third Eye podcast team discuss how to help students navigate beyond the silos, in which we educators and our students frequently dwell.
Myron Dueck is a teacher and administrator from BC, Canada. Published four times in EL Magazine, he is also the author of the best-selling book, Grading Smarter, Not Harder– Assessment Strategies that Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn and Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage. Connect with him at @myrondueck.
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