12 March 2010

The School I'd Like

I rarely respond to internet memes or challenges, but this one struck me as interesting. If I was designing a school, if I was creating my educational utopia, what would it look like?

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.

Summerhill School

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

Technological Freedom

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. 140-145
And 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


Debbie said...

I have multiple answers for this.

Given that I've talked and tweeted at length about my handicapped daughter and what barriers she is up against, I will set that aside, at least for now.

I am reminded of a very innovative program I partook of while in high school. Two Science teachers came up with what they called Special Science Sequence. Was a course designed to take three years to complete. What Mr. O and Mr. D. did was to interweave one year of biology, chemistry and physics in a way where a student could see the connects between the three. It was also a study at your own pace kind of thing. Even though it was supposed to take only three years, a student could take it for four years if that was the pace they chose.

I finished this class in three years, largely motivated by the fact that I really hated high school and, at the time, they'd let you graduate in three years. Others, nicknamed the Screw Offs, were a very bright group of guys who took four years. They knew that no one was going to give them grief for taking four years. They spent a lot of class time gathered around the physics teacher, Mr. O, or "O" as they called him.

Me, as with most of the girls, I spent my time hunkered down over a textbook, conducting experiments or watching slideshows, etc. at the library. Both men were serious about science, but they also knew they could trust us to get the work done. The relaxed atmosphere meant that learning was more than just memorizing a series of facts. Had I had more confidence in my math skills, perhaps I would have done more with physics. I just loved it. And I am sure I would have found it an intimidating experience in a typical classroom setting.

We had long tables and such. The space spoke, this is a science class. But, even so, I didn't find it confining. There were no lectures. No notetaking. At least not in the traditional sense. Easy access to both teachers. I felt at ease.

Not sure about my ideal school, but that would certainly be my ideal learning environment. Our teachers trusted us to do the work. And we did. Imagine that.

Harold Shaw said...

Ira - if you need a Special Education teacher who loves teaching, but is beginning to really dislike all the paperwork. I'm thinking about retiring this summer, but would be interested in an "interesting" school concept besides the status quo we have now in most public school.

:) Get the idea off the ground and they will come.


Debbie said...


I would love to start a school. I am mainly in agreement with Ira about how school ought to be. (I'm MissShuganah on Twitter, so you know who is addressing you.) Have you ever seen the TED talk Once Upon A School With Dave Eggers To me, these tutoring centers are wonderful, inventive ways to engage kids. Wouldn't it be great if we a) had these set up in partnership with existing schools and b) used this as a model for a school? School needn't be dreary. Wouldn't it be great if school were more of an adventure?

One thing that occurred to me while I was in school was how it was beaten into you to conform. I tried that, and it just about murdered my soul. We need to de-institutionalize school. We need teachers, but we need joy over regimentation. We need less checklists and more compassion. The attitude shouldn't be the tired old saw of "those who can, do, and those who can't teach." First of all it's not true. Second of all, we need teachers who have real fire in their bellies, ie, their own passion for learning and willing to check their egos at the door. Nothing more refreshing to me than to hear a teacher say, "Good question. I don't know. Let's look it up together." I cannot imagine anything more empowering that to see your teacher learn along with you. That doesn't mean they give up their authority. What it means is that they respect their students enough to be OK with admitting to not knowing.

We need to recruit people into education who do not just think in terms of easy A's or three months off every summer. We need to ensure that more people who want to engage minds and touch souls enter education, and, more importantly, move into administrative positions.

We also need to learn to trust one another. Have the best interests of the students at heart. That means that teachers need to learn to trust parents and approach them as potential allies instead of parents = the enemy. Yes, there are going to be selfish people who only care about themselves or how their kid's education looks on them as opposed to parents who care about their kids happiness and well -being. Some of us are eager to work in partnership with teachers and principals in creating the best learning environments possible.

I have been wanting to form a school for years now. I have two differently brained little girls, who in some ways, remind me very much of another very differently brained little girl who had a largely horrible elementary school experience. It's as much for that little girl that I want to, need to, create a more compassionate, less regimented learning environment. Joy of learning should take priority over learning by rote.

Maybe it would be better to learn about rocks, say, as opposed to what one hundred is. Or maybe a kid could learn to dance instead of callisthenics in gym class. Or maybe a kid lacking in fine motor skills
could do an art project that is less complicated. Or have it be OK if someone else folds the paper into quarters. (Seven years old and she still cannot fold a piece of paper, is what my first grade teacher muttered under her breath while standing behind me.) Main thing for me is to teach to talents and joys while still working on deficits.

http://www.onceuponaschool.org -- Maybe this all ready is the educational equivalent of Field of Dreams.

Brian Kuhn said...

Ira - I was referred to your blog by Dave Truss and thankfully so. I like the ideas you have for "your" school. I'm part of a Design Panel in my District - we are designing 1/2 dozen schools (K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 schools). Wrote a post recently about designing a new secondary school. We wrestle with the ideal school vs the realities of how hard it is to change practice and thinking... I would be interested your feedback here http://shift2future.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-should-secondary-schools-look-like.html

Anyway, I'll be following your future posts - great thinking.

carol said...

A group of very insightful and dedicated teachers started a k-8 school of similar design ( with district approval and support) here in northern California almost 20 yrs ago. Unfortunately, state testing has resulted in almost the entire program being dismanteled. Testing made it mandatory that kids be given certain curriculum in a certain order whether relevent to their needs or not. It's been very sad to see the school dissolve into just another k-8 factory.

Katy said...

This is completely fantastic. You pointed out many, many flaws that I have with our current schools.

I would add only one thing to this incredible post and say that I have always enjoyed communities within a school as I felt that they discouraged bullying and encouraged student achievement.