The schools I see are almost all failures. Not because of bad teachers, as Newsweek claims - there are bad teachers - but many more great and very frustrated ones, and not because of unprepared students, though students who come from struggling American homes abound, and not because of a lack of competition, equating education with Walmart is just sad, but because we live with a fundamentally flawed design for education.
So, "my school" would seek to address those fundamental problems.
I have to admit, it would not be on-line, though much would happen in "the cloud." I think that there is value in creating a safe learning place, apart from an increasingly intolerant-to-kids-and adolescents world. This is part reversal of our current norm, and part not. Our schools, as destructive as they are to many kids, as intolerant (by design, we proclaim "zero tolerance") as they are of mistakes and failings and differences, are still refuges for many - places where violence and disrespect and even hunger can be left behind. So I like the physical place. I like a physical place filled with spatial and environmental options - noisy to quiet, outdoor to indoor, light to dark, private to collaborative, active to passive...
I believe in creating beautiful educational spaces, spaces which encourage, uplift, inspire. So many of our schools look like brick and block bunkers - increasing the prison metaphors - and I want to do the opposite. And I like schools which sit at some kind of divide, campus and city, or commercial and rural, or land and sea, because I think there's wonderful inherent tension there, as students straddle two worlds, learning the essential art of code-switching through every day experience.
There is an art to this, and it should be an endlessly changing art, with students empowered to use spaces as they need - think Black Box Theatre more than fixed purpose spaces.
And this community learning space must exist freely in time as well as space. It must at least embrace the traditional long university day, and perhaps be a 24 safe place. Students should, certainly after a certain age - if not always - use it as they require, the fixed schedule is a sad hold-over of the industrial revolutions, and has no place in education.
Likewise, the school would float within the calendar, not govern it. I don't believe in semesters or "marking periods" or whatever. Learning does not work in artificial school time divisions at all. I know I usually get most interested, most connected, to a course's content, or to a project, after about ten weeks. It is at that point that I could really roll. Of course, at that point its time, in most schools, to wrap it up and abandon the topic. Students in my school could could sit down with teacher-mentors and plan a path, and perhaps a timetable, but of course they could adjust that as it went along.
No grades, No grades
The two "grading systems" would be gone. They are both destructive and useless. I imagine a K-12 school, maybe a K-14 school, with two divisions - K-4, and 5-12 (or 14). Within these divisions children would progress at their own rates, and they would work with groupings based on interests and capabilities. There would be no "grade level expectations." No "standardized" testing. No students "retained" or "promoted" apart from their age group. (One of the most bizarre arguments in American education is the objection to "social promotion." The entire education structure right now is based on age-linked cohorts, of course we have "social promotion.")
And there would be no grading either. Call it "A" "B" C" or "100" "95" "90" or "4.0" "3.5" 3.0" it is all meaningless. In "my school" students would evaluate themselves, peers would review their work, faculty would review their work. They'd either go on or go back and rethink. We should be teaching, not accepting failure.
No subject divisions
Everything a student can study can, and should, bring every "subject" into play. Shakespeare? There's literature and writing, history and citizenship, sciences from construction through lighting, the mathematics of sightlines, the geography of England. Bridge Design? There's math and physics and chemistry and environmental science and politics and history and art and literature. Anything can include anything if the teacher-mentor pushes questions which need to be answered. And technology now allows students to reach out to information and people who can help with all of these things.
Few things damage education more than the artificial divisions the "Carnegie Units" created, it is time to consign these to the past.
Students at the College of the Atlantic
The students in "my school" would have technological freedom, they would be encouraged to discover the best ways to use media and ICT to support their learning, to build their "Toolbelts." The school could be wireless, or it could be open to 3G networks, but it would be open to the world of today, and to the world which is coming. Just as a vast paper library indicated a "great school" in 1970, an openness to the world's resources indicates a "great school" now. And just as good students learned how to use those paper libraries 40 years ago, good students today must explore the many ways to access the world's information systems now.
We wouldn't have an "Apple School," or an "iPhone School" or a "Google School." We wouldn't even be 1:1. We'd have far more devices than students around, including the student owned devices. We be linked and connected, and offer choices at every turn.
All materials would be available in multiple representations, and students would be encouraged to choose the representation system which best worked for that student in that moment. In these ways we'd be constructing lifespan learners, and lifespan technology users.
A part of the community
Students need some separation from "society." They need to be in a safe place where mistakes and failure are fine. But they cannot be "apart" from their society. Students come in to school with the world clinging to them, we owe it to them to let them find explanations, solutions, answers. We owe it to them to help them become their own change agents.
Connection also provides opportunity, as Neil Postman wrote in 1969:
"Let us assume that the City of New Rochelle, like many other cities, has serious problems with traffic control, crime and law enforcement, strikes, race relations, urban blight, drug addiction, garbage disposal, air pollution, and medical care. Students would be formed into teams, each team consisting of a teacher, a high school senior, perhaps a lay member of the community, and ten or a dozen students. Their task would be to select one of these problems for study, with a view toward designing authentic, practical solutions to it. They would do whatever they needed to do in order to learn about the problem (including previous attempts to solve it) and to communicate to others their own solutions. For example, imagine one team has selected the "crime" problem for study. Some students could spend two or three weeks at the police station, serving in some capacity that would allow them to observe the problem from the perspective of the police. (Some might even go out on calls with police officers.) Others might report regularly to the criminal court, observing the problem from that vantage point. Students could spend many days on interviewing assignments: insurance men, police officers from other towns, ex-convicts, prison wardens, merchants, town officials, et al. Students could review the available literature (both non-fiction and fiction), correspond with prisoners, write to law enforcement officers in other countries. The classroom would be used as a place of assembly when students needed to assess their findings, and to plan and organize additional inquiries. It is important to stress here that the activities described above do not constitute "field trips." Most of the students' "school life" would be spent outside the school where the realities of the problems being studied are to be found. However, included in the process must be a serious attempt to offer solutions and to communicate these to the appropriate people. This might require meeting in school for the purpose of writing resolutions, letters, pamphlets, handbills, etc. Or the students might wish to publish a newsletter about the problem, or produce an audio-tape for broadcasting on the local radio station (in which case some students might spend a week or two at the radio station), or produce a film for presentation to the town council. The possibilities are almost inexhaustible."A willingness to change
Nothing is bigger than this. "My school" should always be willing to change - in fundamental ways. Yesterday Alec Couros linked me to this quote:
"It is interesting to me how many progressive and leftist scholars one can find in the academy, and yet so few of them actually challenge the terms of the debate within the academic system. Progressives who turn a critical eye to all the other institutions in society often seem unwittingly to assume that the academy is either a neutral or benevolent institution that simply needs personnel changes or different policies and procedures. Because the actual structure of the academy goes unquestioned—from tenure processes to grading systems to academic hierarchies—even progressives get trapped in the academy’s meritocratic myth, which either makes them insane or turns them into fascists. All the collective action we support outside the academy seems to disappear inside it—as we slave away in our offices in order to make sure everyone knows how busy and hardworking we are. Instead, we could be working together to support each other, build community, demystify the academic industrial complex, swap survival strategies, and promote life for all of us." (Smith, 2007, pp. 144-145) Complete reference: Smith, A. (Fall/2007) Social-Justice Activism in the Academic Industrial Complex. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion - Volume 23, Number 2, pp. 140-145And this illustrates the trap so many educators fall into. They build, or enter, a structure, and then accept that structure as a "natural" and unchangeable experience. It should be neither.
Great schools change as students need them to change.
My own dream? Trinity College, Dublin. Any job openings?
I could say much more, but I'll leave it there. And ask you: What does the school of your dreams look like?
- Ira Socol