Rob Darling

Changing the Conversation: How Can We Help People Begin Asking for the Things They Actually Want?


During his 15-minute talk, Rob Darling discusses and explains the following:

  • How to communicate to parents about lauching an Montessori adolescent program;
  • How people can start to ask for what they really want;
  • How incremental change is rarely more difficult than fundamental change;
  • The history and purpose of education, how it has acted as an immune response to children working factories;
  • Taking the work of education and creating enough agents for change (stasis) to change the cultural immune response;
  • His wish to do a large-scale study about what defines success in education today.

Darling defines a "Prepared Adult" as someone who, is in the habit of engaging the people and the world as they are, while still making the life and world they would like to see for themselves. They don’t just accept, but seek out the challenges that life offers. The prepared adult knows they will build the greatest things, large or small, not by themselves, but by collaborating with others. A prepared adult embodies the Montessori ideals of independence, valorization, and interdependence.


Darling is a parent of two children, 11 and 6, who attend a small but thriving Montessori school where he serves as a non-profit Chairman and President. He currently works in Software, previously in Music Production. Darling has had the privilege of being able to leave home early to attend boarding school, and to attend university in one of the world's great cities, New York. He has spent a lot of time caring for children and has seen first-hand how children exist at risk in his culture, and the role that education plays in this risk. He has long hoped to change that, and is happy to be finding a path where he can begin to do so.


Hello all. So, I am kind of honored to be here. I am just a parent. I am not an educator. I'm not a researcher. I am a parent of two kids who attend a great Montessori here in Washington. I'm actually not in Seattle. I'm a few hours away from Seattle. The dry part of the state. And but I am the chairman of the board and the president of the school. And in the last year have had to spend a lot of time trying to understand how to communicate what we do. So whether that was to prospective parents this year as we headed into COVID and they couldn't come visit, whether that was our existing parents who've been here for eight, nine years from the beginning and need to understand why they want to move on to launching an adolescent program. Separately. If I want to begin outreach outside of my school and I want to say help the local Boys and Girls clubs take their early childhood programs and make them Montessori. If I wanted to go to the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce and explain what this was and raise funding, how would I do that? So there's been a lot of time just trying to understand how people think about education and how they think about what they want and what they need. And it has led me over the last year to this kind of a spine of communication. I'm trying to understand how you can get people to to really to do the thing they want to do.

Because the fascinating thing in the last year was the number of people I talked to who wanted to have something different than what they have today. It's it's palpable. Right. But they just they don't know how to ask for it. So a lot of people have talked about incremental change and tinkering around the edges. Right. Like everybody kind of knows that's what's happening and they know something needs to be different. They just don't know what it is. Right. And they're scared to change. And so how do we help them say, you know what, I want a better world. I'm pretty sure we can have it. And education is probably an important way to get there in the current education system isn't making the world a better place. People intuitively understand these things. They're scared to talk about it. They're scared to try and change. So I've been thinking a lot about the words. What you will see presented here is the most horrifying PowerPoint you'll ever see, because it was never designed to be a PowerPoint. It's designed to be more of a script and an outline off of which other things can be built. It is not a presentation product. It is something from which you could make a PowerPoint presentation for prospective parents, but it is not an actual presentation. All right. So let me kind of move into that. All right. So changing the conversation, how can we help people begin asking for the things they actually want? Education has been changing incrementally.

We've all been saying this today, but society has been changing exponentially. The incompatibility between the skills we need as adults and the skills that schools are designed to teach only expands with time. The gap has always been there, and the powerlessness to change it is ingrained in our thinking. It's part of our folk wisdom that school does not prepare you for life, right? Desire for change and education is a massive force. We see all these people here today who are doing all of these things and we know there are plenty of other of them out out there in the world. But all the expressions of this desire are this this huge variety of languages and words which dilutes their power is kind of what I've seen. So what I'd like to do is talk about how we can change the conversation so we can potentially direct this power. And I say change the conversation because we all know that any time you go directly at changing education, you will hit like, I don't know how there are 87/3 rails on one track, but there will be 87/3 rate third rails you're going to hit immediately. So how do you remove education from the conversation and get to things that people can talk about more universally? That's kind of what I've been working on. So a few ideas to kind of put in the bucket first before I get to the presentation.

First, entire cultures can share illusions to avoid difficult truths. Like I said, people can say School does not prepare you for life with a wink and a shrug, and then they they move on and that we can all share this cultural blinder in order to go about life and avoid addressing what it implies, which is this absolutely essential element of the fabric of our society. Does it work? Doesn't do what it needs to do yet. We just we can move on. Right. So that's horrifying in some ways. But when it comes to trying to craft a discussion, it's really neat because these allusions are helpful when we're looking for ways to engage people, because the more widely held this illusion is, the more people we can reach there in agreement. Agreement is a great place to start. All right. So next, people often make the mistake of asking for the thing they want or the thing they have come to believe will get them what they want rather than the things they do want. All right. So the thing is, people need change. They're quietly hungry for change. They are often starving for change. They can literally die of a need for change. You look around our country right now in the United States, something like the opioid epidemic. Epidemic, right. People need change. Right. And and entire swaths of our society are dying because they need change.

So scared to ask for what they really want, they instead ask for an intermediate. The care is less perceived risk wave. This is the tinkering around the edges. All right. So it's really important when people start asking for things that you go a little bit deeper. I want STEM. Doesn't necessarily mean I want STEM, right? Do I want my kid to be collaborative? Do I want my kid to try something new? Do I just want to change? What is it they're really looking for when you talk to people? Next. Fundamental change is rarely harder than incremental change, but it feels more risky this year. Everyone who was a believer in technology in schools finally got what they wanted, and every school in the country and every classroom became a technology classroom when the amount of energy that it took was massive. But it all happened in one year. It's crazy. Like huge things can happen and they can happen fast, but it's risky, right? So it feels less risky to modify something, you know, than it is to do something new. All right. And these are big risks for parents. Changing education. Education systems means risking their child's future for educators, administrators, researchers, policy leaders, they're risking their careers. Right. So fear of personal risk is harder to overcome than fear of the work required to change something. So you're dealing with people's personal fears when you're dealing with conversations like this. So this is frustrating, but it's completely normal, even healthy that is that what we're running into is our cultural immune system acting in response, doing what it's supposed to, because this these mechanisms create the status on which growth can occur.

We wouldn't have a stable society if there wasn't some management of risk and some amount of inertia so that things can stay. But as with any immune response, it can become imbalanced and create damage. And it's important to go back in time. I've put this here very importantly, 120 years ago, children were raised by their families and a few community members around them. Right. And with the best of intentions, as people moved to cities, worked in factories, child labor laws came and kids didn't work in factories anymore, but there was nowhere to put them right. And we ended up with this reaction. We ended up with this really bad apparatus that reflected, you know, what people thought they were doing, which was training kids to work in the factory system and keep them out of jail. Right. And we have an education system that reflects that 120 years ago. And things have only kept changing since then. And now kids are raised by the entire world and this massive bureaucratic apparatus. So that's a big shift that no one planned for. And since education is a big fundamental element of our society, it has a big immune response. And it's it's a complete mess. Right. That immune response is broken and confused, but it's big and it's powerful.

Right. So it's that's what we're dealing with. Right, is something that is is normal but broken. So how can we help this? Academics. Researchers. Educators. Administrators. Policy leaders. Community members. How do we all work independently? How do we work together? How do we follow our curiosities? Right. And all the clues we find but head toward a goal. Everybody here is doing amazing, interesting stuff. I could do this for a month. I would love it. Right. To sit here and really hear in depth what everybody is working on. But how do we how do we start taking that work and bringing it together? How can we craft a language and direction that is sufficiently universal to embrace a lot of agents of change while being sufficiently focused and concrete to gain momentum? How can we institute change while bringing improved status to the cultural immune system around education is really the question. So what are we going to do? We're going to try to make it feel less risky for people to ask what they for, what they want from education. If fear of risk is the first level response of the immune system, addressing this fear is the first step to creating change. That sounds really hard, right. But the fact is, we are dealing with people, right. And we all deal with people all the time. And there are well tread paths for helping people get to where they need to go.

First, you have to give voice to their beliefs. What is it they believe about the world? What is it that they want? What are they scared of? You have to give voice to their fears. You always have to recognize them and validate them and you can never minimize them, but you have to address them. So in doing that, what you need to do is give them security that making changes safe and that there is a reward. Reward. If I won't lose a and I might gain B, which is the thing I really want, then why not? That's the discussion. So for example, when we look at something like. Math and science. Do we try and prove all the time that Montessori is better at teaching math and science? Or do we say it is not worse? But we'll also give you something else instead. And that's a really important thing. Right? We need to change the conversation. Right. This is what I mean about changing the conversation. If we can add something else and get to the thing that people really want to talk about in education and say you're not going to lose the other stuff, it's not going to go away, but you're going to get this other awesome thing. Then we can redirect the conversation. So what I'm proposing is kind of a scaffold of communication about educational change, because all systems have standards in order to facilitate adoption railroads, electronics, communications protocols. They all share standards in order to encourage widespread use.

Fortunately, I'm not far out in front of my skis. I was scared. Silly of this walking in today. I've heard nothing but echoes of the words that I'm that I'm using here. And that's that's really fantastic. So let me kind of dive into this really quickly. So what is it we really want from education? And if we can answer that, how can we get there? If we are educating people, shouldn't we be asking what kind of people we want to see as a result? Right. So this page does a very specific thing, right? What it asks is, parents, what attributes do you want to see in your children? Employers, what do you want to see in your employees? Employees What do you want to see in coworkers, friends and partners? What do you want to see in each other? And I'm asking about attributes. I am not asking about skills. I am not asking about anything concrete. I'm not asking parents, do you want to see success for your children? I'm asking that an attribute. And this is a neat thing because it is completely abstract, right? I am now getting asking people to talk to abstractly and strategically. Right, and asking them what they want right next. And this is something I would like to do is a large scale survey, by the way. That's why it says word cloud goes here. This is something like to work on with Mike and talk about how we can try to gather a large a large survey of what it is, what are the attributes people want so that I'm not just making up some stuff here.

I could put in a bunch of words and I can guess what we'll end up here, but I don't know. Be nice to have real a real survey to do that with. So but the goal is to end up with a set of words here that reflect values that people hold about what they want to see from each other next. What does success look like in our current education system? It is a bunch of numbers that we all know don't do an awful lot to predict success in life. So now we ask people the question, why are we setting measures of educational success that have no relationship to the things we want to see? If you could see the change tomorrow, which would you like to see? 100% of an entire generation of kids who nailed every current metric, or 100% of a generation of kids who were ready for life after school. Right. That's a that's a tough question for people, right? Because it sounds impossible to train people to be better people. Right. And what I get to is saying, but is it a false choice? Can you learn to be a great person and learn subject matter mastery at the same time? You don't have to give up being great at math and science to actually also learn how to be a great person.

That's the point. People don't believe this is possible. We have to lead them to asking for it. So. This is where we get into Montessori. How can we get there? Is anyone doing this Montessori as an example, as the most widely implemented alternative, traditional to traditional education methods with the longest history, has the most data to work with, most robust methods and most clearly elaborated principles. For 100 years, Montessori educators have been considering the questions of how to educate the whole person, not content to just consider them. They've been methodically observing, iterating and refining a system of learning that seeks to understand the student as a whole person. All right. So words everybody has said here today, I'm very happy that this is out in the air. This is within the water. This is the thinking that we all do share. But that hasn't been expressed cleanly across the entire global Montessori community. So what is this goal? The prepared adult. So what I'm trying to do is shift gears from that big cloud of words down into one word that can capture everything they said. Right. And that's the beauty of this idea. Maria did nail this one pretty well. It's not just a Rorschach test that I can plug anything into. It is it is truly an all encompassing word that does meet all the children, all the students, and accept them where they are and help them get to where they need to be.

So the prepared adult is the first word that I will would introduce non Montessori and to then what are the skills of the prepared adult? Again taking words from Montessori independence. Valerie Valorization and interdependence. Independence not as a spirit but as a skill. How do you see what you need to do next and how to make it happen? Valorization that pride and then interdependence. And the neat thing about these three words, again, is that depending on whatever you saw in that word cloud that you related to say, I wanted to see kindness and sharing for my as attributes of my child. Independence is a requirement of being kind. You have to be an independent thinker. You can't just go with the crowd valorization. You have to be proud of your choices. Interdependence. Clearly, they're right that parent can find that stuff there. If you want your kid to be ambitious and and competitive. Right. Independence valorization interdependence will go with that as well. If you are competing, you need to be a great team member. Right. And everybody can find meaning in these words and begin. Coming together around them. And so we've now shifted the discussion of what education is about away from all the words that people think they need to use, to the words that they know are more valuable. Right. But it's a big tent of words. A very big tent. Again, Maria did a really great job trying to think in these terms.

And it's it's timeless thinking. This is timeless philosophy. And as Tim said, none of this stuff is new, right? It's all waiting there to be picked up. And it's here for us. So how do you teach this? And what about the math, the science and the reading? So again, going back and validating the fears that people have that they're going to lose something. Right. This is where we come to. You know, as has been said today, Montessori is just a great center for changing education because it does have the biggest history. Right. And it has 100 year history of teaching these skills of the prepared adult, while also very successfully continuing to teach math, science, history, reading all the other stuff. Right. So from there, again, how do they do it? You start to move into the elements of classroom, the three part lesson, the prepared environment, the prepared adult. Here, you deal with a couple of the myths about Montessori. So for example, the myth that it's just free and they do whatever they want. Right? So to understand the prepared environment is probably a really big idea that I think Montessori is myths and explaining what actually happens in a classroom and that it isn't just pure freedom, that a child is being guided through a prepared, prepared space that is adapted to their needs and where they are developmentally. Then we go a little bit deeper, right? Respect for independent learning, respect for the plains of development, the value of mixed age cohorts, respect for the three year cycle.

Right. So we're getting further and further into the, the real meat of Montessori and then. The last stage here is what goes into the lessons, the practical life sensorial and then the last three are really important, the important wind ups. This is the end of the presentation for the for the this explaining how this works so self correction this is a this is where you get to that executive function really self controlling your self uninterrupted work periods. This is a shocking idea for people, right? That a goal should be to make sure a kid is not interrupted. For a long time. They go about their business and they learn to control themselves for a long time without being managed by an adult. And that winds up on executive function, which to outsiders is just the most fantastic thing. When you talk about this to people that you know, the goal is to teach people to take care of themselves and that even a three year old can completely control their day and control their success is a fantastic thing for people to hear, that it's teachable. So and that's it. The point 100 years people have been doing this, they're doing it all around the world with children of every age, race and cultural backgrounds. We can have it. We just have to say we want it. So that is the end of it.

Made possible by the Prepared Adult Initiative.