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Reflecting on values

Dear Parents,

As I am sure you are well aware, REAL School is no normal school.

Our mission is unique and vitally important: “to inspire and empower the next generation to dream and build a beautiful world.” This may sound whimsical, fanciful, or even abstract, but it speaks to a deep need to do things differently, and is grounded in reality.

Our world, meaning humans and the more-than-human environment, is in a precarious epoch. The debt-driven, carbon-based global market economy is a system run amok. It is a system utterly dependent on perpetual economic growth and commensurate energy extraction, while Earth’s resources are bound within finite limits. Humans, sleepwalking through life with little if any conscious awareness of our impact, have pushed the planet past six of its nine inherent boundaries, climate change being but one of them. What awaits us is grim: global heating, extreme weather, mass extinctions, mental health crises, immense inequalities, forced migrations, political extremism, and armed conflict are all on the horizon. Mind-bending technologies may save the day, or they may hasten our downfall – we simply do not know.

One thing we do know, however, is that most of these problems were instigated and perpetuated by highly educated people. Schools played a pivotal role in creating the quagmire. To say that the industrial-era model of school is sorely outdated and incapable of meeting the needs of kids even today, much less of those in the future, is no slight understatement. It is in this context that we at REAL School are quite consciously uninterested in doing “school as usual.” We aim to be part of the solution, not proliferators of the problem.

As a school and as a community, we need to be brave and bold enough to dream big and envision a healthier future. We need to summon the will and determination to reject doom and distraction, figure out how to adapt to impending changes, and learn whatever it takes to nurture civilisational and planetary regeneration. In a word, we must learn to evolve.

Decorative phrasing aside, our school mission is really about helping kids to be reality-ready. We want to raise kids to be strong and well, adaptive and intelligent, knowledgeable of self, others, and systems, and sufficiently competent and aware to manifest dreams into concrete actions the world actually needs. Hence, our program focuses sharply on regeneration, systems thinking, impact entrepreneurship, and well-being, among other things. Or at least puts major effort into getting there.

Our approach is non-ideological; above all, we must do what works. That is why our pedagogy includes a mix of approaches, like project-based learning, mastery learning, competency-based assessment, and nature-based, experiential learning. Knowing that there is no one right way, we will continue to experiment until we discover what works best for our kids. We will celebrate and share our successes and be forthright and reflective about our mistakes, using them to do better at the next opportunity. I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say we will never settle. Because we must make this work.

I know of no other school on Earth with so great an ambition or a more important mission. That is why I, and so many of us, are here. This is our purpose.

It is a huge undertaking, one that demands a serious sense of responsibility. As we continue to build our system, it is imperative that we get certain core things right. Chief among these, in my view, is clarity around our core values.

Our values state who we are, what we believe to be true, and what we aspire to live up to. They are our light when things get dark. They keep us honest and on course and help us make the right decisions when the path forward is obstructed or unclear. It really matters that we get them right, and stay true to them once we do.

That said, I think we got ours wrong.

The process of reaching our first values iteration was a long process yet felt too rushed. Even so, we put a lot of thought into them and, in my view, came up with some good values that represent what we really believe in. The problem, however, was that their synthesis was incoherent.

Tellingly, the acronym they ultimately spelt was “PACED.” It seemed to capture the exhaustion of the moment. I remember thinking aloud to try to make sense of this. Fast-paced? Well-paced? The acronym was illogical. But we were drained after a long day, and frankly, were a much less cohesive team at the time, so we all just dropped the matter. This did not sit right with me, but I let it go, wary of making too many waves. It has bothered me ever since.

The values we generated were as follows: Passion, Authenticity, Care, Equity, and Diversity.

REAL School Budapest school values passion authenticity care equity diversity

These sounded good to us, but none were defined at the outset. That proved problematic numerous times, as team members sometimes equated equity with equality – two very different concepts. Equality is about sameness; everyone gets an equal share of the pie. This is how flat taxes work: A nurse and a billionaire pay the same rate because that is equal and somehow, therefore, just. Equity, on the other hand, is about creating fairness through recognition of different needs and creating the conditions for everyone’s needs to be met. This is how progressive taxes work: they are based on income or wealth, which determines the ability to pay.

In a school context, equality might mean that everyone does the same assignment, regardless of prior knowledge or readiness. If a student spoke almost no English and was given tasks that demanded advanced language competency, for example, they would be treated “equally” but would not have their needs met or be set up for success, as they would not be able to access the activity. An equitable approach, on the other hand, would necessitate making differentiated accommodations to tasks to ensure that such a student could complete them and learn. This is just one example. In schools, there are hundreds of these every day. But this is to show that if we choose to live by them, words really do matter. We had several confusions around this because of our failure to define, which caused a lot of unnecessary frustration, poor decisions, and wasted time.

This problem of incoherent and undefined values lingered in my mind until I finally decided one day to do something about it. What initially nudged me was the question of sufficiency. The values were simply not enough. Something really important was missing.

In a start-up school, particularly one that aims to both do what we do and to get it done within a self-managing, teal organisational structure – which, trust me, is a lot harder – it is inevitable that we will make many missteps before we find the right footing. But at the same time, it has felt since day one that we are nowhere near good enough, and a significant part of the reason is that we are not yet aiming high enough, not yet holding ourselves to a great enough standard of success, and are too often willing to accept flimsy excuses for quite avoidable failings, often under the guise of being “entrepreneurial.”

Simply put, even in the face of very visible and measurable improvements, I felt strongly that we needed to do better, and that we needed to embed our ambition in our values and hold ourselves to them more tightly. This is how the value of Excellence emerged.

I think we should always aim for excellence. Those of us who are experienced educators know that students rise to meet the expectations we set. If our expectations are low, their effort, growth, and competency development will likely be low, too. If we set our expectations high, with the right support, many kids will meet them and, crucially, all will do better than they otherwise would.

To clarify, excellence does not mean perfection. It does not necessarily mean outstanding maths scores as defined by the bureaucrats who wrote the UK National Curriculum. It does not mean our school, or for that matter, our country, has better scores than that school or that country. Instead, it means setting your sights high, defining excellence by setting concrete and attainable goals developed in reference to real-life examples and your current level of readiness, and producing work or creating things that are near, meet, or exceed those goals.

The way we do this is simple. We have kids analyse exemplars of great work, be it a video or a vertical farm or a presentation or whatever, co-construct the criteria that make those products excellent vis-a-vis inferior products, and then use those criteria in rubrics to set goals and engage in recursive reflection and feedback processes that drive increasing levels of performance, deeper thinking, and better product creation. This is a basic best practice in great schools around the world.

Will all kids reach excellence in all things? No, they will not. Such is life. But we should aim for excellence nonetheless because in doing so we better help kids grow. By setting the right goals about what to grow towards – things like regeneration, systems thinking, impact entrepreneurship, and well-being, alongside things like music, maths, woodworking and so on – we create the conditions for kids to engage in meaningful learning in the present and hopefully also thrive in a future where mediocrity could mean disaster. Aiming for excellence really matters.

Feeling strongly about this, I revisited our acronym. Adding Excellence to PACED didn’t work. PACED with an E? Then it struck me: there was a redundancy.

Whereas Passion, Authenticity, and Care are each conceptually quite unique, Equity and Diversity, on the other hand, are deeply connected. They can stand side-by-side just fine, but not without overlapping. Their relationship is not an equal one, where part of each fits equally into the other, like in a standard Venn Diagram. Rather, in this case, one concept implies the other.

Diversity, I would argue, is the fundamental ordering principle of the universe. It is an essential and deeply beautiful feature of life and living systems. As a value, Diversity is about recognizing and valuing difference and uniqueness. Importantly, it is a concept and manifest expression that can exist on its own. Equity, on the other hand, has no ontological basis without existing in relationship to Diversity. One can, for instance, love the diversity of nature without acting on that instinct. But one cannot meaningfully value Equity without simultaneously valuing Diversity. It takes an appreciation of difference and a recognition of differential needs, as well as power and opportunity imbalances, to act upon or even to truly understand the concept of Equity.

In other words, Diversity can exist without Equity, but Equity cannot exist without Diversity. The relationship is such that Diversity is necessarily nested within Equity. One might even say that Diversity is the heart of Equity.

I hope I haven’t lost or bored you. I think this is a super crucial distinction. Understanding this would mean gaining a much richer conceptual understanding of what Equity truly means and implies. It is a stronger core value, in my opinion, when it stands alone.

Realising this provided two opportunities. First, and rather paradoxically, it seemed we could better uphold Diversity by omitting it from our list and insisting on its continued existence as embedded within Equity. Second, its omission would allow for something much more beautiful to emerge via the regeneration of our values acronym.

What we gain in making this move is not just a better acronym, we would gain a meta-value, and one that is greater than the sum of its parts.

We would now have Passion, Equity, Authenticity, Care, and Excellence – which spells PEACE.

REAL School Budapest school values peace passion equity authenticity care excellence

I think we should embrace, value, and work diligently towards PEACE.

The world we are mission-driven to dream and build at REAL School is a more beautiful one. For me, that absolutely means a more peaceful one. We need to dream of a world where we build peace by actively striving to understand, dismantle, and replace unjust, life-threatening systems with those that allow us to live within our planetary means and in an equitable relationship with each other as a species and, indeed, with all other ones. We need to dream and build a world that is more beautiful because we see ourselves, each other, our planet, and all life as one.

I am passionate about this. I know this goal may seem ridiculous, but equity is a life-affirming value we should all authentically care about and aim for, and we must strive for excellence in doing so.

Personally, I have never been interested in having some BS job where I live for a paycheck. I choose to live a life of purpose, despite the sacrifice. PEACE, both as a singular value and in its disaggregated form – Passion, Equity, Authenticity, Care, and Excellence – is something I see as worthy of working towards. I believe these values are seriously worth striving for everyday, and that we should take them seriously and measure our efforts and outcomes against them.

At the same time, I think it is important to not become too attached. Living systems, by definition, grow organically. We should encourage regenerative co-creation and evolution when it makes sense to. I invite you to reflect on these values, consider their meaning and utility, and kindly share your thoughts and feedback. I hope we can engage your children in caring about these values as much as we do. When the time is right, I think we should involve them in fully defining them, too.



REAL School Co-designer

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