“If you were to start a school from scratch, what would it look like?”
I’ve been tossing this question around in my head all week. It seemed like a somewhat easy question to answer. Every day I am surrounded by amazing educators and policymakers thinking about how to improve education. However, now that it comes time to put virtual pen to virtual paper I’m finding that the answer is not an easy one to nail down. It is very complicated. Outlining a new school or educational system that takes lessons learned from the past and applies them to brand new approaches, strategies, and policies will take longer to describe than a simple blog post. But I can outline a few of my personal must-haves and core beliefs.
Since I am employed by an institute of higher learning and serve on a local school board, this is the time in the blog when I must pause for a brief statement. The opinions and beliefs expressed in this post are my own. They in no way represent the beliefs or positions of any of the organizations of which I am associated.
Now with the legal stuff out of the way, let us get on to dreaming big. Shall we?
Here are some things that I would include if I could tear down the metaphorical walls and start from scratch. They are in no particular order and by no means are they the only things I would include. To be honest, I’m not even sure if they would all work. But, dreams have to start somewhere, right? Here we go.
- Individualized learning plan for every student. Progress through the educational system would not be based on age or seat time. It would be based on progressive learning goals and a student’s individual progress towards those goals. In the early years, teachers and parents would work together to develop and implement a plan for helping a student successfully reach learning targets. The student would also be involved in that process as soon as possible.
- No letter grades. What does an A really tell us about student learning? It could mean that they have successfully demonstrated that they have mastered the content or, it could mean that they figured out how to game the system. There would definitely be formative and summative assessments embedded throughout the system. The reporting, however, would be more meaningful than a letter grade. I can’t tell you how many times my own kid told me that a C is passing and he just needs to pass. So he did what he needed to get a C. My other kid is similar except that As are important to her. She admits that she knows what she needs to do to get the A but also admits that she doesn’t feel like she really understands what she’s learning. How would things be different if each of them was involved in setting their learning goals and identifying how they would demonstrate learning? What would happen if grading focused on feedback and progress towards learning goals instead of points and a letter grade?
- Teaching would be done by a team of teachers working together instead of one teacher isolated in their room. I get to co-teach a lot of workshops. My colleagues and I each bring a different perspective, knowledge set, and interpersonal style to the learning experience. We play off of each other’s strengths and fill in for each other’s weaknesses. By teaching as a team, we can also address the needs of all our learners. While one of us is presenting new ideas or setting up an activity, the other is watching the crowd looking for signs of understanding, questioning looks, or disengaged learners. We also design learning experiences that are a bit outside of the box. Things that may or may not work exactly as planned but as a team, we can readjust and go where the learning takes us. It is easier to take risks when you know there is someone there who has your back. Also, we are expecting our students to learn through collaboration. Should we model that by teaching collaboratively?
- Learning happens through real experiences and blends all content areas together. Reading, writing, math, science, social science, technology would all be learned in an authentic context. This one really deserves its own blog post. I might just leave this one here and come back to it. I will say that I have seen first hand how an understanding changes when content is connected to something relevant to the learner, or placed within a real context. Again – I might come back to this in a future post.
- Teachers are also learners. Ok, here is my crazy idea. What if kids spent four days a week learning instead of five and one day a week was dedicated to the professional growth of the educators? Teachers could spend that time reflecting on what worked during the week, reading and applying the latest research, networking and collaborating with peers, digging into new technology tools, working towards their own personal learning goals. How would that change the culture and mindset of the school?
- We need to remember that changing education is a system-wide challenge. It is a P-20 problem, not just a K-12 problem. We can’t just change the teaching and learning environment for K-12. Any innovation in the K-12 system needs to have a counterpart in higher education. The higher education issue is two-fold. First, we need to think about what happens to students who have been through a revolutionary K-12 program only to find themselves in a higher education system that has not changed. A student that has spent their first thirteen years of learning in a project-based, hands-on environment, might not know how to be successful in a lecture-based classroom. We also need to think about how we are preparing teachers. If we looking to transform teaching and learning in K-12 then we need to make sure we are preparing new teachers on how to teach in this new environment.
These ideas are not new. There is research and theory out there that supports (and argues against) everything I’ve just written. Examples of the ideas listed are happening somewhere. There are pockets of innovation in schools all over this country. I’ve seen some of them myself. A lot more thought needs to go into this question. As I reread this post, I generate more questions about how all of this might work. As a big picture system-wide idea this is by no means a workable idea, yet. However, I would love to spend some time researching best practices and reading and writing up case studies for the different elements. I would take time exploring what is happening in all those pockets of innovation and how it impacts their students. I would also love to see how I could weave the eight characteristics of Innovator Mindset into these ideas. I see where they fit. In my head, it works.
So, what are your thoughts? Would any of this work or is it unrealistic? Are you one of those pockets of innovation? If yes, what are you doing and how is it working?