A Taste of Berger: Reading ‘An Ethic of Excellence’

In the classroom, there are a lot of rules. You have to learn your lesson plans, study the right way, and you better not cheat when you take your tests. But when I was in high school, I was a pretty good student. I also liked to read. And I didn’t want to just sit there and study or read a textbook. I wanted to do something. So I read a book. I already knew how to read, but I wanted to learn how to learn, and that’s where I found “An Ethic of Excellence” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The book teaches you how to think and act in a way that will make you successful. It’s a long book, but it is well

When I first read “An Ethic of Excellence”, I was struck by how much it resembled a text I had previously read. I knew it was by Tom Peters, and that it was about business, but I didn’t realize how much more I was going to learn from it. This book is a great overview of how companies have become globalized, how the industrial revolution changed the world and how technology has shaped work and companies. It’s an excellent read and a great introduction to the author, Tom Peters, if you don’t know him.

Ron Berger’s The Ethics of Perfection should not be read in the hustle and bustle of the morning bus or crowded trains, nor in the middle of a busy office – it should be enjoyed in the privacy of a quiet room at home – preferably in a New England home designed by Ron himself, with a burning fireplace….. Well, we can all dream!

Seriously, his book is more like an extended essay that reflects his obvious wealth of experience, his humanity, and his obvious generosity as an educator. He is clearly both an excellent teacher and a master of his craft – a figure about whom Robert Frost would write a wonderful poem! There is indeed something poetic and comforting about the many anecdotes he tells. But his book doesn’t just offer solace to a group of aggrieved teachers; it also provides a practical toolkit for creating an ethos of excellence in schools.

The Ethics of Excellence is an excellent book for teachers and certainly for leaders at all levels who are passionate about their craft. Of course, the best way to get a feel for a book is to read it. So I’ve chosen a few quotes from the book to help you think about it and hopefully encourage you to read this wonderful book.

First, this quote from the introduction is a timely reminder to Gove and his associates of the excellent work already being done in our schools:

It bothers me when I read a newspaper these days and keep coming across an article about the education crisis and how some new quick fix will solve the problem. No more testing, teacher protected curriculum, merit pay, national standards.

It reminds me of an advertisement for a diet product. Lose weight fast! A significant weight loss! No work! A lot of money is spent on diet products, a lot of money is spent on new educational tests. But it seems that almost everyone who loses weight quickly with fast-acting products ends up gaining it back. Constantly weighing yourself does not make you lighter, and constantly testing your children does not make them smarter. It seems that the only way to really lose weight and keep it off is to adopt a new ethic: exercise more and eat more sensibly. It’s not a quick fix. This is a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life.

It’s hard for me to think of a quick fix for education, because I don’t think education is broken. Some schools are very good, some are not. Good schools have an ethos, a culture that supports and compels students to strive and succeed. Schools that are not, need more than new tests and standards. You have to create a new culture and a new ethic. I don’t think there is a shortcut to creating a new culture. This is a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life. (P4, Ethics of Excellence)

This passage brilliantly captures the transformative power of individualized learning:

I believe this work is transformative at the highest level. Once a student sees that he is capable of excellence, he is never the same again. There is a new vision of yourself, a new vision of possibilities. There is a desire for perfection. Once students get the hang of it, they are never satisfied with less; they are always hungry. When teachers at the Austin School for the Deaf pointed out to Sonya that many students were not as invested in their work as she was, she did not hesitate to respond: That school ruined my life, she says. I’m never satisfied with anything until it’s almost perfect. I should be proud. (p. 8, Ethics of Excellence).

This extract discusses the power of criticism to shape good practice and offers simple but effective guidelines for peer review:

We try to start by asking the author/creator of the work to explain his/her ideas and conclusions, and to explain exactly what aspects of the work he/she is asking for help with.

We criticize the work, not the person.

We try to start our reviews with a positive point about the work and then move on to constructive criticism.

We try to use I-lectures as much as possible: I wonder why you decided to start… ? Or have you also considered… ? (P94, Ethics of Excellence)

This concept of evaluation within a student really impressed me:

Most discussions about evaluation start in the wrong place. The most important evaluation that takes place in the school does not relate to the students, but to themselves. Every student walks around with an idea of what is acceptable, what is sufficient. Every time he works on something, he examines and evaluates it. Is that enough? Can I pass it on in good conscience? Does it meet my requirements? Changing assessment at this level should be the main assessment goal in every school. How do we get into the heads of students and flip the switch that regulates quality and commitment? (P103, Ethics of Excellence)

Finally, what I find most powerful about this booklet is the tremendous warmth toward his students and young people in general that shines through in his words. There is no dispassionate irony in his style, he is courteous but completely focused on improving education for the students. Mr. Gove would do well to have that in his subject. Established systems of school competition and for-profit school management are portrayed as fragile and fraudulent, in contrast to the values of collaboration and excellence that underpin Berger’s brilliant book.

Try it, buy it – trust me, you won’t regret it: http://www.amazon.co.uk/An-Ethic-Excellence-Building-Craftsmanship/dp/0325005966.

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