Part I: How We Arrived At Where We Are Today
In a keynote at the recent ASCD national conference, Fable Vision CEO Peter Reynolds described the ideal learning space for learners.
“…. lots of essentials for creative classrooms- environment,lighting, color, music, plants, art, nooks, invitation, blank page,tools to express, no tech, low tech, high tech, walking bamboo tablet, time, freedom, visionary leaders who are kind, caring,creative, biggest tool of all is love –let every child know they exist and matter, love…”
This kind of space represents a learning happiness quotient that’s missing today from the lives of many educators and the young people they serve. Today’s hurried, or harried, educators, (both of which can be applicable at any given moment) talk fast, eat quickly, and live in perpetual motion while attempting to meet all the deliverables expected of them by a multi-tiered federal and state bureaucratic hierarchy intent upon standardizing and measuring their every movement.
Why do we educators work this way?
Our President said recently that too much testing bores learners. He’s right, but there’s more. It sucks the life out of learners and those who teach them. The factory school model of today represents an edu-genetic line stretching back to the days when Elwood Cubberley (1868-1941) sold the notion that schools could be run more like businesses using principles of Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management.” It’s a model designed to measure how many children and teachers jump through hoops, negotiate over barrels, and maneuver around hurdles to pass muster on scientifically constructed multiple choice tests. And, it’s a model for quantifying through scientifically developed growth formulas the degree of widget learning that a particular teacher “produces” among students over the course of a school year. It looks like this.“ The emerging view of the 1920s principal as scientific manager dominated the scholarly writing of the 1930s. The spiritual element of the principalship became less important, and the conception of schools as businesses with the principal as an executive became more popular. Business values and rhetoric gained acceptance within school systems, and as leaders of the schools, principals became business managers responsible for devising standardized methods of pupil accounting and introducing sound business administration practices in budgeting, planning, maintenance, and finance.” (in Strayer, Engelhardt, & Elsbree, 1927 as cited by Brooks and Miles)
How does this fit with what other nations do to support learning?
Here in the United States we possess more visible numbers to measure student performance than any of the top performing nations in the world. We’ve even figured out the science of counting erasure marks to determine if a school has lost its ethical core when it comes to administering high-stakes tests. Despite all of this hard factory schoolwork, our Secretary of Education says that 82% of America’s schools likely will be labeled failures this year. Former President George Bush, NCLB champion, exhorted educators across America to test kids and then test them some more, believing that measurement would solve achievement problems. Yet, after ten years of NCLB under Republican and Democratic administrations and 100+ years of factory schools, achievement gaps still prevail.
Trend data as evidenced by NAEP results demonstrate this model hasn’t worked so well. Fortunately, a few educators seek alternatives to Cubberley’s factories for children. Their work’s aiming towards Peter Reynolds’ descriptor of what learning spaces could be.
Part II: We Can Choose to Do Otherwise
What does a school do to become more of a space for learners and learning as Peter Reynolds describes rather than one of Cubberly’s legacy?
Watching a DVD at the end of the day on the last day of the workweek, I found myself reflecting on how a school staff shifts culture. The DVD contained a documentary of recent images of learner-led conferences in an elementary school that must meet federal and state “improvement” mandates. I was moved particularly by the image of a child Skyping with grandparents in another country while leading a conference with his parents and teacher.
Instead of succumbing to improvement by test-taking curriculum, courageous educators in this diverse, economically disadvantaged elementary school embark on a different path. Imagine slowing down time so that all children, PK-5th grade, can sit with parents and teachers, open folders, and share their best work in their own voices. Imagine working in a school whose principal leader (@mlandahl), despite living under the long arm of NCLB sanctions, chooses to lead for learning, not testing, and to create a culture where “every child knows they exist and matter.”
Rather than adopting educational recipe programs, educators in this school choose to frame their work through two overarching approaches, Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. In doing so, teachers use social responsibility as a guidepost to engaging learners in building community ownership rather than relying on ‘reinforce and manage” behavioral controls. You’ll find children outdoors building cloches to cover their newly planted seeds or huddled around a table creating an environment for red wigglers so they can figure out how worms turn “stuff” into compost. The project expeditions provide children opportunities to pursue interests with passion. Their teachers also have embarked together to evolve a community of practice. They engage in collaborative learning rounds much like those found in the best teaching hospitals. This is a school community in which educators and children are on an expedition to learn together.
How could I not notice the culture shift in progress as one that matters?
Will this school meet all the improvement requirements set before them by today’s disciples of Taylor and Cubberley’s principles of scientific management? That outcome still’s in question. It’s a work in progress as the school’s educators and learners continue to draft and redraft their work.
This I do know. The young people and teachers in this school are forging important bonds as a community for learners and learning. Through these bonds, they’re developing the dispositions of self-determined learners who are curious, interested, committed – and who appreciate working together. These bonds create possibilities and potential that young people served here will pay forward a deep care for communities in which they work and live. Along with this sense of social responsibility, their teachers and principal dream of children growing up with a passion for learning that will last a lifetime.
In my opinion, that’s adequate yearly progress worth measuring.