31 January 2011

The View from Here

What do you see when you look at a school? What are the clues to the education happening inside?

What is happening in the corridors? Schools are – or at least should be – learning communities. Academical Villages to use Jefferson’s lovely turn of phrase. So the corridors, the hallways, are the streets of this “Learning City” or “Academical Village.” And where those streets intersect, are the urban spaces which define a community.

So when I see a school with empty corridors during large parts of the school day, I tend to suspect that learning in that school is isolated, is private, is perceived as something which goes on best behind closed doors. Empty hallways suggest a lack of collaboration, yes, but something deeper, a lack of cross-group inspiration. Various divisions within the school, our odd separations by age and subject, are not getting to see what others are doing and how they are doing it, so the natural form of peer mentoring is absent.

I want to see students working in the halls. Not doing tests, working alone or silently – hell, our classrooms are designed for that – but being engaged in open, collaborative, and publicly visible work.

I also want to see students moving in and out of the classrooms. Are kids free to get to the rest room, to the water fountain, to the library, to just ‘take a walk’ when they need to, to shift their focus (as Alcott knew they must, back in 1832)? Or is this “city” or “village” under lockdown most of the day?

What is on the walls? It can be quite calming to have a few clean walls, sort of “pure architecture moments,” but in general the corridors of your learning community should advertise the efforts of the citizens of that community. And not just the finished products, but works in progress, so process is on-display and can be discussed.

Some of us made black Wordles and some of us made
white Wordles, but who chose a way to do
linguistic analysis?
But I look for something else. If I see a wall of student work and that work is more similar than different – if it all carries a similar format instead of being based in an understanding – I suspect that students are being taught to copy and plagiarize rather than think and create. So if the projects on display relate to, say, Ancient Greece, I want to lots of different conceptions, efforts, forms. And if the idea is analysing lingual content, I don’t want to see 30 Wordles. No teacher should ever really tell a student, “this is what I want this to look like.” It should always be, “show me/tell me what you know and think is important.”

Are punishments permanent? “What do you do in this library?” I asked students in a Philadelphia high school last week. “People come in and hang out, sometimes they do homework,” was the reply. “Can you eat and drink in here?” I asked, because visiting adults were eating and drinking in there. “No,” the students answered, “we used to be able to but not everybody cleaned up so we lost that.”

“What do you have to do to get that back?” asked another visitor. “We don’t know,” the kids said, “no one ever asked that or talked about it.”

This is the “permanent punishment.” Violations of the law result in a kind of “death sentence.” And that demonstrates to kids that learning and growth are not expected.

“OK,” I said, “but you guys are going to college, right?” “They all nodded. “So how are you going to learn to function in a university library, where everyone is eating and drinking coffee and stuff, if you can’t practice it here?” And at this point they seemed confused. Nobody, apparently, had shared with them what a university library might be like. So the other visitor said, “Go ask the librarian what you need to do to get food and drink back in here…”

Rights and expectations are a learned thing in a learning community. We do our students no favors if we offer them no path to grow.

Questions, not Answers. I like to see schools with a lot more questions up on the walls, and flowing through adult speech, than answers. When the students in the library above asked the Librarian, “What do we need to get food and stuff back in here?” the Librarian gave them an answer. “I think you should form a volunteer crew to bus the tables and clean up,” he said, after first admitting that (a) he also had never thought about this, and (b) he didn’t know what university libraries were like.

I would have preferred to hear him say, “Why don’t you go visit places with books and food, and see what they do?” or “Why don’t you get a bunch of kids together and make a proposal?” or just, “Can we get together and figure out how to keep this clean?” Because I would prefer that students be engaged in ways that cause them to think, learn, collaborate.

I look for the “Questions, not Answers” everywhere in the building. On classroom walls, in corridor displays, above the whiteboards, even on signs near the doors. Better to ask, “Are you disturbing other students?” than to say, “Be Quiet.” Better to ask, “What is the periodic table of elements and how does it work?” than to just post a chart.

Are students moving toward trust and control of their own learning? In a primary school I get disappointed if a classroom for ten-year-olds looks much more “regulated” than a classroom for six-year-olds. Or if a secondary school classroom seems more fixed and group instruction oriented than a kindergarten. If we are trying to help our students become lifelong learners, able to build their own learning environments and learning strategies, then each “step up” should move toward flexibility and and that combination of individual needs and collaborative environments which define the real world in this century.

So I look for highly flexible, comfortable spaces in our classrooms, and I look for evidence that we trust our older students more than we trust our younger students. If that is not true, I assume the school is failing completely on that “helping us build citizens” thing.

Are there bells? I do not believe in bells or factory whistles at this point in time. And I do not think we ever want to encourage students to think that learning is stopped and started with Pavlovian signals.

I also do not want students to imagine that they will respond to a “bell schedule” anywhere outside of primary and secondary education. If they’re waiting for the bell when they get to a university, there’s a problem.

A subset of this: If you have bells, and students are “late” when the “class start” bell rings, they must be free to leave the minute the “class over” bell rings. If you follow the bell for late, but claim that “only the teacher can dismiss the class” you’ve swapped even your 19th century factory logic for authoritarianism.

What can you imagine on your way home from school?
Dr. Seuss,
And to Think Tha I Saw It on Mulberry Street
More rules than suggestions? A long time ago, back when New York City operated a little democratically, Mayor John Lindsay’s Parks Department tore down the big “NO” signs at parks and playgrounds. You know, those signs with a giant “NO” on the left next to a long list of prohibited activities, from spitting to bare feet. In their place went signs which listed a long list of fun activities – with a few crossed out: “Running, Jumping, Spitting, Climbing, Eating, Drinking, Punching, Swinging…” Ever since I’ve looked for signals of inspiration for children which outweigh signals of prohibition.

Schools should encourage kids to pick up leaves and make up stories on their way home. To talk to someone they've never spoken to before. To look at an old building and imagine its past. To wonder at the cloudbanks outside the classroom window.

What I too often see, especially near doors, range from "control" statements to prohibitions, even if they are politely phrased as "expectations." Expectations are fine, but imaginative suggestions are more important.

Comfort and Joy. Look for signs that this is a comfortable place and a joyous place. Are there places, in corridors and in every classroom, that you would find comfortable? That a child of the age this school is for would find comfortable? Would find comfortable throughout their moods? Is there space and time foe for joy? Not just joy for a few, but joy for the community?

Learning can be hard work. It often is hard work. But work need not make one miserable... that is an unfortunate remnant idea of the Reformation which should be tossed away.

This can be expressed lots of ways, from evidence that every student interest is embraced by the community (in secondary schools I look for wall postings about student initiated clubs, non-school activities, etc. In primary schools I look at those walls for evidence that the school celebrates every student), to watching how students move through the corridors. I look at the furniture choices in every space, at the lighting, at how kids eat. I look for the kind of impromptu performances and artworks that make great cities of culture the great cities they are. Are kids busking during lunch? (collection of money not required in this case). Is play celebrated?

Next time you visit a school, take a look. A real look. What do you see?

- Ira Socol


David said...

I like your criteria for a good school. I feel like our school has a lot of those attributes, but when parents come to visit us, some of them are looking for quite a different experience.

"Chaotic," one parent called us and declined to send their child to our school.

In my mind? Learning is messy. Memorization is tidy. I'd rather have a school where I can tell children are learning, but where they are doing it wherever it is convenient in the school rather than in the predefined boxes we call classrooms.

Tom Schimmer said...

Great post. The permanent punishments...only in schools do the vast minority of students create the conditions for everyone. Questions...yes! These quesitons lead to students owning their own learning. Signs of joy...love that too. EVERY child enters school beleiving they can learn and excited about going to school. What happens? Thanks for your post...I'll be back!