How Do We Start the Educational Transformation?
We have traced the rise of the factory model in schools after the industrial revolution thus far in our series. We also examined the need to modernize schools to operate more like an adult workplace. This needed educational transformation will be more engaging for students. It will also better prepare them for their post-secondary pursuits of college and/or careers. As we make these changes to schools, we could be starting a revolution in the way schooling is done in America.
I like to picture myself as an “educational William Wallace” from Braveheart. I would be riding on horseback to gather the troops. Then, I would give an inspiring speech to motivate everyone to make a valiant charge at our current system. Another inspiration of mine are the colonists sneaking onto boats parked in Boston Harbor to dump tea from the ships to protest unfair taxes. I would at least want to write a scathing letter to someone like King George and his outstanding singing voice (hopefully you have seen Hamilton!). My goal would be to explain the way things would be from this point forward “to show my love.” Sadly, I am afraid our first step in the educational transformation is not that exciting.
Educational Transformation: The First Step
The first step in the process of the educational transformation is for each one of us to get very granular about our beliefs. We want to outline how we feel about students, learning, the role of adults in education, and the purpose of school. Just to be clear, I am not talking about a new mission statement or motto for your school. Instead, we need to really do some digging and reflection.
Create a vision for your school in which all students are engaged in learning and happy to be there. What would need to be in place?
Imagine you have teachers and other staff who are excited to come to work each day and find value in their work. Why would that be?
How would students and adults spend their time in this new reality?
Too many schools start with unhealthy beliefs.
We believe that staff and other adults are not going to make good decisions. Therefore, we manage them to the point that they have no choice. We assume students don’t want to learn. Thus, we create systems of compliance that force them into behaviors we don’t think they will adopt on their own. Often, the system that has been created is not designed to focus on giving students skills beyond high school. Instead, students just “get through” content.
In our school, we had the unique opportunity to unpack the purpose of school as we were designing our model. Ultimately, we decided that the purpose of our school is to give students a place of belonging. They choose to attend because of the relationships they build and the way they spend their time. Within this environment, we give them the chance to practice being an adult.
As we unpack the beliefs, we need to make sure that our systems and processes align with our beliefs.
I have read many school mission statements that talk about student independence and autonomy. Conversely, the school tells each student how they will spend every minute of every day. Some schools describe the desire to create community partnerships. However, they won’t approve field trips for students to get into the community. They also don’t find the time for guest speakers, school assemblies, or other activities that will bring the community into their school.
What if someone from the outside were to do an audit of the policies and practices you have in place in your school? What would they think you believe about students, staff, and learning?
As we think about this alignment (or lack of alignment) I am reminded of a very famous American company. This company articulated and displayed their values proudly on the walls of their offices. They were: Integrity, Communication, Respect, and Excellence. These admirable qualities are important for an organization, but this company was Enron. Ironically, the energy company went bankrupt due to unethical accounting practices and corrupt leadership. Our articulated values are only as important as the actions to which they lead us.
Your current system is perfectly designed to get the results you are currently getting.
If you are unhappy with your current results, you have to be willing to make significant changes. These changes can and should begin through an examination of your beliefs as an organization. The way these beliefs practically play out on a daily basis also needs to be considered. To be clear, these changes need to be bold and transformational, not just the small, safer changes we often like to make in education.
Let me illustrate this point with a quick story. I have had the unique privilege to visit schools across America. At last count, I have been in schools in 26 different states. As I have visited classrooms in these different regions and states, everything looks/feels very familiar. This is because the classroom experience is very similar across the country. Although there are some small “pockets of innovation” where teachers and principals are taking steps towards change, these changes often are not very bold.
For example, I went to an “innovative” elementary school in North Carolina a couple of years ago. Their school had done some work around the physical needs of students. They had some different programs for students involving movement. There were extra PE classes and a few other initiatives to make wellness part of the student experience. As we visited one of the classrooms, the teacher was talking about the use of flexible seating. Specifically, they had yoga balls in place of chairs in the classroom. I looked across the room to find that the yoga ball chairs were all paired with the desks, but still in rows just like a traditional classroom. Just to be clear, yoga balls in rows is not the revolution or the innovative mindset we need to be pursuing. We can’t just overlay new ideas onto old concepts.
Food for Thought on Your Educational Transformation:
As you articulate the beliefs of your school, here are some places to start in this reflection process that may be helpful. While I don’t think these questions are exhaustive in their scope, they are a good starting place.
Question 1: “Is your school built for learning or schooling?”
Students inherently learn all day long, every day. I have two teenage children in my house. They spend most of their time every day learning. My son is watches YouTube videos about how things are made and other areas of his interest. He watches science experiments gone wrong and bodybuilding techniques. My daughter scrolls Instagram for fashion tips and dating advice. She also watches Survivor to learn skills in case she is ever stranded on a desert island with a group of strangers.
As educators, how can we harness the inherent desire to learn in ways that benefit the student and the school?
We often spend time creating structures for schooling that often get in the way of learning rather than enhancing learning.
Question 2: “How much time do students spend working as individuals vs. working as a group?”
A student recently shared the statement, “Life is actually a group project.” I love that imagery. The student was referring to the unpredicted and messy outcomes that often accompany a group project. Everyone has a role. Some play their role better than others. Success often comes from those that work together most effectively. The final result or destination is not always known. To be successful in a group project, you need to know, understand, and use your resources effectively.
Since life is a group project, we need to give students practice and experience in this type of environment. Additionally, these experiences can often provide students with opportunities to connect with the community outside of school. There, they see what resources are available to them to solve their problems and to receive feedback on the solutions they create.
Question 3: “Do teachers (and students) focus on the product or the experience?”
In many schools and classrooms, the focus is on the end product. Teachers create specific rubrics that provide a roadmap for a student to follow to get the best grade. Little thought is provided to how a topic could impact a student emotionally or cognitively.
Consider these examples:
When learning about the Holocaust, is it more powerful to create a poster board explaining the “key events” or to tour a Holocaust Museum and hear first-hand accounts from survivors?
In Geometry, do we create artificial, theoretical projects or meet with construction or landscaping contractors to see how they use Geometry on a daily basis in their work?
For science class, are the labs an add-on or are they the focus of the course?
How can we continue to create opportunities for students to learn from experiences, not just make stuff?
As we ask ourselves these questions, our beliefs will also emerge. The practices that misalign with our beliefs will be exposed. In the revolution, these could be the first “shots” towards making a substantial educational transformation in our systems.
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