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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E20: Does Banning Things Actually Keep Children Safe in Schools?

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

In the final episode of Season 3, Diane notes that many of the solutions to help make schools safer all focus around banning things: banning Critical Race Theory, books, speakers and more. Michael and Diane discuss what these ideas from both sides of the political spectrum share in common — and whether this instinct is actually the way to make our schools safer.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane.

Tavenner: This is our last episode of the 2022 school year, Michael. I will be honest with you, I’m relieved. This has been the hardest year of my career, which seems crazy, actually, given the previous two years where the pandemic closed our schools.

Horn: Yeah. No, it’s not just you, Diane. I think people thought we’d be in person, so things would be easier this year. But it’s been anything but, as we’ve said multiple times. There continue to be lots of fraught decisions to make that have high stakes attached to them without simple guidance.

That’s stressful for educators, and as we know, parents and the public are also expressing their views far more without reservation, which I think we should say actually has both good and bad sides to it. But it does make for a very difficult environment to navigate.

Tavenner: Yes, for sure, Michael. I’m just going to hold those thoughts there for a moment because we say it almost every episode, but I think it’s because we both can’t really believe it. We had no idea that we would be hosting a Class Disrupted podcast three years into the pandemic. Well, I mean, for that matter, that there would be three years into a pandemic. But…

Horn: Totally. I mean, that’s just the reality, Diane. I mean, we were both pretty sure we’d be done after our first season. So when you say you’re relieved that this is the last episode of this season, I don’t take it as an insult because we both, all of a sudden it’s not what we expected, and we have regularly checked in with each other, so our audience knows, asking ourselves, “Is there need? Is there relevance to continue the podcast?”

But honestly, based upon what we continue to hear from listeners and our own experiences, class is still completely disrupted, and we have not seen the changes to schools that we were both hoping the pandemic would catalyze. That said, we do both remain optimists.

Tavenner: We do. Your optimism is reminding me that a number of years ago, I co-wrote a paper titled “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic,” and then followed up a few years later with a second paper. That one was titled “Still Dissatisfied, More Optimistic, Fully Committed.” It’s funny, to think back on those papers, they were all about the types of school models that could serve students in today’s world, given all of the outcomes our society needs and wants. And we’ve talked about those a lot.

More importantly, these were models that are existing in our public education system. And it seems like we continue to be optimistic because these things exist. But the feelings of disappointment persist, I think.

Horn: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. We’ll include links in the transcript to both of those papers, because I remember them. I do think it’s worthwhile just to emphasize what you just said, which is there are in fact models of schooling that exist, that have spread in certain cases, that are so much better than what most students are experiencing today. And yet, with that said, most places keep doing the same old thing, Diane.

Tavenner: Yeah. Michael, more often than not, that’s because adult interests get in the way of what’s best for students, which leads me into a conversation I’m interested in having with you, Michael.

Horn: Diane, for listeners that don’t know, I’ll say you’ve been mentioning that something has been on your mind for a few weeks now. So I admit, I am quite curious. What’s up?

Tavenner: All right. Well, here we go. When we started our first Summit school, it’s almost 20 years ago, if you can believe that, one of our core commitments was to create a school that was physically and emotionally safe for every student. And remember, this is 20 years ago, so that was a language we were using. Michael, we were focused on schools that were diverse by design, as you know. 

And so, we were seeking to enroll students from different races, socioeconomic stations, cultures, and basically any other dimension of diversity. We did then as we do now believe that diversity is a strength, especially in the process of learning, but only if everyone’s able to be themselves in an environment that is both physically and what we called emotionally safe.

And as you know, we’re incredibly intentional in our schools about building environments where everyone can be themselves. Certainly, they aren’t perfect, and they take constant work. But for a long time, our schools have felt like safe places, certainly physically safe. It’s felt like most of our work on making sure they were emotionally safe was making sure they were free from bullying and other things that create the feeling of not being safe.

Michael, sadly, I feel different today. It feels like it began with COVID, although I know that it didn’t, and has just grown over the last two years, this feeling that schools aren’t safe places. My biggest concern, Michael, is that most of the conversations about what to do are taking us in the wrong direction.

Horn: Before we go there and into that deeper strand, I want to just step back on two things, first to acknowledge what I hear in your voice and what I see in your facial expression, the listeners can’t, but I see it, which is just how much you and frankly every educator in the country is holding, and has been holding for years. And I, as you know, I’m really sorry that you might even have this feeling. 

You’ve talked about it a little bit before, and if I’m reading you right about where you’re about to go, which isn’t to condoning “safe places” where people are sheltered from hard conversation, but instead would also say “safe places” where people are in safe environments, where they’re able to have respectful yet hard conversations. You know this. I’m distressed that as a country we’ve landed in this space where that’s become difficult.

Second thing, listeners might not know, but you and I, as we pick topics and go back and forth, we’re really conscious of and disciplined about not discussing topics that are, frankly, just totally polarizing and don’t seem to have any sensible third way options or rational middle ground solutions. And that strikes me because we’ve both refused to get caught up in some of the conversations and some of the polarization that has just seized our country. 

Again, this is just only if I’m hearing you correctly, I might not be getting it, but it sounds like there might be a need on your end, of saying, “Hey, Michael, let’s dip our toes in those waters today.” So I want to hear, Diane, more what’s on your mind and how you’re framing the challenge.

Tavenner: Yeah. Michael, thanks for your support and your willingness to even consider, because you’re right. I mean, we are really diligent about making sure that we’re talking about what’s possible here. And like we like to say, finding the third way. I guess where I’m going with this is that I’m worried about our schools being safe places, and I’m spending an extraordinary amount of time working on and thinking about this. 

As you know, I’m not the only one by any stretch. I mean, this is what I think every educator’s doing right now. It seems that the solutions I gravitate to are very different from what I hear discussed and see happening. The way I’ve come to think of this is, it seems like everyone wants to ban things. The solutions people have are, for lack of better… Banning stuff. 

I guess I was thinking, am I overgeneralizing? But then I started to make a list of everything that people want to ban in the name of physical and emotional safety in schools, and well, Michael, that list starts to get pretty long pretty quickly.

Horn: All right. So you’ve got my mind going because that framing both lands, but I’ll also confess, I haven’t seen it framed that way before, Diane. Lay out the list that you wrote down. What are you seeing?

Tavenner: Yeah. Well, I mean, let’s start with the easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit. I mean, how many stories this year are about banning critical race theory or CRT in K-12 schools? The close connected to that, banning books. I mean, lots of books for all sorts of reasons. But mostly, it seems to be around identity issues, so race, gender, sexuality.

There’s been all the work to ban masks in schools. And at the same time, we want to ban the unvaccinated people. We want to ban sex ed. We want to ban discussing anything related to gender and sexuality. We’re banning parents and visitors from school grounds so that we can supposedly keep them safe. We’re banning controversial speakers from college campuses and banning children who misbehave and banning cell phones. I mean, yeah, that’s just the beginning

Horn: Yeah, that’s quite a list, Diane, and I’m sure our listeners will be able to come up with even more things that people are seeking to ban. I confess, Diane, as you know, and I talked about it in the last episode, I finished Crime and Punishment over the weekend. I mentioned, in the last episode, that it had been assigned reading when I was in 12th grade.

And among the many thoughts I had as I read it and finished it was whether it would still be read or be allowed to be assigned in today’s schools, because, just for example, there are several disparaging lines that stereotype Jews in the text. I was able to read them for what they are and what they represent, and frankly, I found it fascinating and a window into some of the psychology that I’m trying to get into by reading this form of fiction.

But I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing that gets a book like that banned these days. Now, look, there’s some nuance on a lot of that, on some of these sorts of items, based on age perhaps and as you and I would probably agree, whether bans on what’s taught in school ought to come from the state or even federal level in some cases. 

But I think there’s certainly a common strand here, which seems to be, “I don’t like X. My solution, let’s ban X.” But I guess what’s made me uncomfortable with all these conversations is if an outright ban is ever a productive approach. Look, you’ve been chewing on this framing more than I have, Diane. I haven’t thought about it until now. So what are your thoughts?

Tavenner: Well, they’re complicated, so let’s start first with the items on the list that seem to be about banning access to ideas, which is, I think, where you were going there.

Horn: OK. That seems like a good entry point. It’s certainly something I’m seeing a fair bit of in both K-12 schools and college campuses. And the proposals to ban ideas, frankly, are coming from both sides of the political spectrum. And so, let’s dig into that conversation by thinking about the values, maybe behind people who make proposals to ban ideas.

Tavenner: Exactly where I was going, Michael. Let’s just take, for example, generally people on the political right are calling for the banning of CRT in K12 schools. They don’t want it taught or discussed. And most often, the reason given is because it makes white children feel shamed or blamed or even hate themselves, which could be summarized, I think, as, this is emotionally unsafe.

We’ve also seen a ton of calls for the banning of controversial speakers on college campuses, with students who are objecting to their presence, making the case that the ideas of these speakers create harm and an unsafe space, and that they feel unsafe as a result. As far as I’m aware, most of these folks identify with the political left.

Horn: That’s interesting. What’s pretty clear, I think, from the outside also is that neither of these groups support the other groups’ call for a ban. So the calls for bans, they spark the “other side” to actually often, Diane, ridicule beside asking for the band, for the most part, and talk about how banning this would be undermining the pillars of our democracy and language like that. 

So I’d be curious to dig a level deeper and think through each side’s respective reasoning for not supporting the ban of CRT or not supporting banning controversial speakers.

Tavenner: Yeah. Michael, as I understand the arguments, both sides will say that banning the ideas and information they want to be aware of is, like you said, I mean, I would go so far as saying it’s un-American, right?

Horn: Mm-hmm.

Tavenner: I mean, take for example what is happening in Russia right now. Interestingly, the American people are more aligned on their beliefs about Russia’s war on Ukraine than just about anything they’ve been polled on in recent memory. And for the most part, Americans think that the actions Vladimir Putin is taking, essentially banning any discussion or criticism of the war, or even calling it a war for that matter, well, I guess the word that comes up for me is antiquated.

I mean, this idea that somehow you can just keep information for people, keep them in the dark and only feed them what you want them to know, I mean, but it both seems impossible in the world today, given all the access we have, but also unfree.

Horn: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point, Diane. I mean, for a long time, I actually had wondered if the thing that would finally unite us as Americans once again, relatively speaking, is a shared view of a threat to our way of life and our values from a foreign country. And to be honest, I expected that would be from China, Diane, but Russia has filled the void with its actions and then some.

But I guess, there’s a deep irony here. We have relative unanimity on this when we talk about, say, Russia or China. But when it comes to our society, we want to ban things that we don’t agree with. Look, I do get the instinct. I mean, you want your kids to be exposed to the ideas with which you’re comfortable and you believe in, but you get a little uncomfortable, a little squishy feeling when it’s the ones you don’t agree with, or you don’t believe in.

This desire, it’s almost a custodial desire, but it’s one rooted in fear, seems to be the root of the issue. The other thing that is occurring to me, Diane, is it also seems counter to how people learn and that schools in my view should be places where we grapple with tough concepts, figure out our true north as individuals, and actively help students understand that people can see things differently, and that those differences merit respect rather than persecution.

That’s actually, as you know, a core argument in my upcoming book, From Reopen To Reinvent, on what I view as one of the six core purposes of schools, Diane.

Tavenner: Michael, now you’re getting to the heart of my instincts around how we address the reality that ideas matter and they can hurt for sure. And they can create a feeling of unsafety, if that’s a word, and… 

Horn: Carry on, it’s a podcast.

Tavenner: And so, I mean, it’s not hyperbolic to need and want to address that. And it can be taken to an extreme where we don’t expect anyone to have to hear anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or read anything or anything that creates discomfort. There’s this concept in the science of learning called productive struggle. The idea is that it’s incredibly useful for learners to have to struggle a bit as they’re learning. 

I always think of it a bit like the three bears, the struggle shouldn’t be so easy that you don’t learn or so hard that you really can’t get anything out of it. But if it’s just right, then a learner really grows, and this is something we’re always aiming for. If you combine that idea with so many of the universal skills that people need to be productive members of society, and also to be professionals, quite frankly…

Let’s just take, for example, the ability to critique an idea versus attacking the person with the idea. Sadly, we don’t see this skill demonstrated all that often in society right now. I realize I’m getting in the weeds here, so let me pull up to a different altitude and simply say that a school that is designed to equip students with the skills and habits they need to be productive and successful in society doesn’t need to rely on emotionally threatening content being banned in order to be a place that is safe for students. 

There really is this false connection being made between exposure to anything that is remotely uncomfortable and safety.

Horn: This lands, Diane, as a framing for me, that we should actually want students to debate tough concepts and see science, for example, as something that is never “settled” but actually is a process of proposing theories, testing, learning, and updating our models, and seeing difficult conversations as ways to get at deeper truths.

You know my mentor, David Gergen, always said that we need to learn that we can disagree without being disagreeable, and that we can disagree with someone’s ideas. We can even, in certain cases, view those ideas as dangerous, but also generally in our society, give people the benefit of the doubt and believe that they’re doing things because, as they frame the world, from their standpoint, they genuinely think that this is what is in the best interests of humanity. And it is just that, it’s genuine.

Now I’m getting, I guess, a little more philosophical here, but I think it’s because the way you just framed the learning science is quite persuasive to me. But I also want to just acknowledge, Diane, I think it raises another challenge, which is that, yes, ideas can be threatening, and they can start to come down a slippery slope a little bit. You and I even had that acknowledgement around whether the Confederate flag ought to be banned in society or not in relation to how Germany treats the Nazi swastika. 

But I think where these things start to get dicier, shall we say, is then when conversations around safety from different ideas and viewpoints start to slip into the realm of physical safety itself, Diane, and I’m curious how you think about that.

Tavenner: Yeah, Michael. I’m internalizing that the idea of banning thoughts, ideas, and books in our schools and across the spectrum seems to be clearly not grounded in our American values of, let’s say, freedom and self-determination and curiosity, and nor are they consistent with the development of skills and knowledge and habits that will set students up to be successful adults. 

That actually feels pretty straightforward and values align to me. I think that you are correct that things get a lot harder when we are talking about banning things that threaten physical safety.

Horn: Yeah. So let’s unpack it a bit, because let’s start with the proposed bans that are coming from different ends of the political spectrum right now. But frankly, I think similar to the banning of ideas, share some reasoning underneath them. For example, let’s start with the horrific recent mass murders in Uvalde, Texas and the uptick in school shootings this year across the board.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a number of calls to ban lots of things, but let’s start with the sale of weapons to 18- to 20-year-olds, and to those with domestic abuse or mental health issues and even assault rifles. Those bans are all being called for right now, Diane, in the name of preventing school shootings. 

Now, at the same time, there’s also a growing call to hold schools accountable for “not banning students” or what we would generally call expelling students, students who are threatening, have made threats, or have misbehaved in schools. There’s a whole group of people that believe these students should be banned from school. We’ve talked about some of this. So you have these two ideas, essentially ban dangerous weapons and ban people. 

However, I think the same contradiction exists as in the ideas one, the people calling for banning the weapons are at the same time fighting the ban of students and vice versa. That is those who want to ban the students are vehemently opposed to banning the weapons. And I guess, it seems to me the reasoning used to fight the bans once again seems similar. 

So in the case of people wanting to ban the students, people argue that students aren’t inherently bad and they aren’t adults yet. Most often, those who are behaving in dangerous ways, they come from circumstances that are causing or creating these behaviors. And if we throw them out of the system now, in many cases, we know we’re essentially setting them up for a lifetime of imprisonment or what folks call the school to prison pipeline. 

But I think not dissimilar as the argument around guns in and of themselves aren’t dangerous. People say it’s disturbed people who are the problem. And so, we should deal with the people who are mentally, emotionally, or criminally challenged and misusing guns, Diane. So you have this interesting dichotomy on both sides of it once again, I think.

Tavenner: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve been grappling with, Michael. Of course, we could spend days unpacking the depths of these positions, but I think the most important thing here is to realize that people who are on the side of banning in one instance, are on the opposite side in another with really little detectable difference in the rationale. 

Of course, as my board chair likes to say, that might be a BGO or a “blinding glimpse of the obvious.” But I think the point is that folks have literally no ability to talk with each other about these things. This is the big one, Michael, to change their minds and positions even just a teeny bit, which takes us back to education, because you and I envision schools that give kids countless opportunities to practice the skills and habits that would allow them to do just that, to actually be in dialogue and conversation, and maybe even shift their perspective based on that.

Horn: Yeah. My head’s spinning as you’re talking, Diane, on a number of fronts. I mean, I think this intentional building up of skills is not just a thing that school should do, but in my mind, it is one of the core things we should want schools to do. And yes, that means that at different ages, they’ll be ready for different concepts as they get more maturity to differentiate.

I think, frankly, it also means that top-down teaching and in a democratic environment like us that tries to indoctrinate, might have the opposite effect, actually, is what people often think it might. But our friend, Sal Khan at the Khan Academy and friends at ASU Prep Digital are launching a new virtual school, Diane, which I recently wrote about called the Khan World School, it’s launching in the fall.

I interviewed Sal about it and one of the things he said was that there’s going to be a daily seminar where high school students in the school debate topics that frankly often are not discussed in schools for all the reasons you’ve laid out, things like, will the Fed be able to control inflation? Will CRISPR change the human genome, and should social media be blamed for the polarization in the world? And presumably many of the other things we’ve talked about in this episode today.

But I guess that brings up a really important question, Diane, which is, if our schools today are not creating these environments where we can have these conversation, is in only new schools like the Khan World School that will be able to do this where people, and frankly only some people, consciously opt into them, or is there a way you can actually change the schools themselves?

Now here’s the transition, because we’ve spent a lot of time in our first three seasons talking about our vision for how schools should work and cutting into a variety of issues and questions that our audience, educators, parents, students, and we, you and me, have. But we spent relatively less time on how to help schools themselves innovate. We’ve touched on it here and there, but we’ve done relatively less on it.

I think, Diane, it’s time for us to move to that conversation. And it happens to be an area of passion for both of us, this question of, how do you innovate in an existing structure? And so, for those listening, this is going to be the topic of our next season. We’re coming back for a fourth season in the fall, and it’s going to be around how to innovate in a nimble way in established schools.

It’s a topic I, for one, and I know Diane is as well, really excited to dig in. On that note, before we actually officially wrap up the season, Diane, and try to decompress a little bit, I think we owe it to our listeners, what are you reading or listening or watching right now, or is there something you’re looking forward to doing with your summer?

Tavenner: Well, Michael, like you, I’m really excited about the prospect of next school year and next season, and it being about the process of transforming our schools. Honestly, I can’t wait to dig into it with you. And so, I have two thoughts on summer reading for me. You just brought up one, and then a second that I was planning on. The first one is, I think I’m going to reread an oldie, but goody, if you will, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

I’ve always found it to be a really accessible guidebook, if you will, for those of us who are trying to innovate. I’m excited to get refreshed and re-inspired and would offer that, if I could go back to my old teaching days and give a little bit of a summer reading assignment, for those who want to join us next fall, that might be a fun primer for, I think, some of the good conversations we’ll have.

I am also going to spend some time this summer digging into the history and literature of India, Michael. And as you know, my son Rett will be studying there next year. I’m really looking forward to visiting him. As you know by now, when I travel to new places, I try to always immerse myself in them before I arrive, through my reading.

I’m super open to recommendations from anyone on that front. And so, if anyone has them. What about you, Michael? What’s the summer hold for you?

Horn: Well, first, let’s say, write in to Diane with your recommendations about good readings about India and good fiction set in India. Funny you say The Lean Startup, because I reread it while I was writing my book over the past few months. I don’t think I mentioned that in the podcast, but it was good to do so. But as for me, Diane, so Anna Karenina is the next Russian novel on my list. I’m going to stay with that.

But obviously, coming out in July, my new book, From Reopen To Reinvent. So that means I’m going to be spending a whole lot of time on that this summer. But the book I’m reading right now is actually by my mentor that I referenced earlier, David Gergen. It’s his new book, his second book, Hearts Touched With Fire: How Great Leaders Are Made. As I’m reading through it right now, it obviously has deeply personal lessons for individuals.

But it’s also reminding me of a bunch of other things that I want to read in the leadership literature of, how do you motivate people and organizations to change? And given that that’s part of the topic for our season next year and we both have touched on it, I think I’ll leave it there. And I’ll just thank you, Diane, today, but throughout the season, for your vulnerability and questioning and thoughtfulness.

I’ll thank our audience as well for joining us with curious minds and open hearts in what’s been a tumultuous several months on this season of Class Disrupted. We’ll see you next school year in the fall.

Tavenner: Yay. Awesome.

Horn: I think it’s going to be pretty freaking powerful.

Tavenner: I hope.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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