Blog Comment: What Would We Build?

[It is] striking when you think about how little of this really transformative thinking is taking place when we think about schools. And how difficult it is to retrofit this thinking into existing spaces. […] I think most of us in this conversation would say “no”, that we would create something very different. That given a blank slate, we would keep the best parts of the interpersonal relationships between adults and kids but throw out the schedules, the desks in rows, the grades, the workloads, the levels and more and “think fresh” about the learning process in the context of what’s available to us now. Still, I wonder what percentage of educators in general would really think differently about the role of schools and their roles as teachers and learners.

In Weblogg-ed: If we could start over, what would we build?

Will Richardson, over at Weblogg-ed, has been writing from time to time about the issue of how we would build/create/rethink learning environments in the 21st century, given the tools that we have at our disposal now.  And he also comes to the conclusion (as I do) that the schools we build in the future should look much different than the ones we have now.

But how is it that they should look?  It is very difficult to imagine new buildings (or lack of them) in the 21st century when we have been wedded to certain ideas about what schools look like.  The industrial form, with classrooms arranged off of long hallways, has been the model for at least fifty years. When I look at classrooms in older buildings, I see similar classroom ideas: large rooms for desks, with a teacher’s desk in one corner or at the head of the room, and a blackboard at one end.  And when I go back in my mind to college, to our 150-year-old academic building that had only nominally been renovated, I think — “Wow, the classrooms looked just like classrooms. Even then.”  A local historical society has a two-hundred year-old building in an old schoolhouse, and — guess what? — their classrooms look just like classrooms, too.

So we have at least a hundred fifty years of pedagogy, and more like two hundred, that think of schools as a hallway, an office, and schoolrooms.  To that model we’ve added a gymnasium, a laboratory or two, and maybe an auditorium… but the essential model still holds. 

We’re not going to be able to let go of this model easily.  Plus, from a green perspective it makes more sense to renovate and re-equip the schools we have, than to start over with brand new buildings.  There’s so much material, time, effort, energy, and physical infrastructure locked up in the buildings we do have.  Replacing them, especially when we include the cost of demolishing the old structures — for every school district in America — will be tremendously expensive, and we’ll have very little money for this kind of restructuring.

So let’s think about functions that we’ll want students to be in school to do, instead.  What do the classrooms have to do, that they don’t currently do, but that they could?

  • Presentation spaces
  • Theaters (black box vs. proscenium vs. theater in round)
  • Discussion groups
  • Research space
  • Social space (conversation, snack bar, etc.)
  • Project assembly
  • Galleries
  • Computer labs (Foreign Language, digital, multimedia)
  • Liaison offices
  • Continuing Project Centers
  • Remediation Centers
  • Testing Centers
  • Community Space
  • Science laboratories
  • Physical Education centers
  • Classrooms
  • Art Labs
  • Recording Studio
  • Audio/Visual Stage & recording booth
  • Tutoring space
  • Guidance Office
  • Learners’ Council 

I’ll be writing about two or three of these every Monday this summer, and build some guidelines about how to renovate classroom space to do these kinds of new projects, but I think it’s interesting that classrooms and tutoring space are still on the list.  We all know that face-time is tremendously valuable in learning, whether one-on-one or in groups.  And we’re still going to need space for that to occur.  

Yet here’s the two most important things that I think I came up with in brainstorming this list: the Learners’ Council and the Testing Center.

Learners’ Council

We all know that school governance has to change.  The model of a head of school who is answerable only to a school superintendent who is only answerable to a board of education (or a board of trustees) is stifling innovation.  It must either go, or be bypassed somehow.  The current financial crisis may be the best opportunity to abolish them.  In their place, though, each school needs a bottom-up deliberative body, with weekly open meetings.  This learner’s council needs to have financial authority to make spending decisions for the school, and it needs to consist of members of all the stakeholders in schools that exist today: parents, teachers, students, representatives of the town, alumni, local business leaders.  Their meetings need to occur at the school they control, they need to have open question-and-answer times, and the results of their deliberations must be filmed, blogged, and presented on YouTube or similar service.  They should have rotating, term-limited officers, too, like secretary, president, vice-president, and treasurer, and they should be governed by Roberts’ Rules of Order or a similar body of regulation.

Testing Center

You should be able to take a test in a subject when you’re ready to do so.  If we’re going to have high-stakes testing, then let’s allow students to set the time of their testing, not the state.  The multiple choice examinations should be computerized, and you should be able to take them at any time, on your own schedule, in the school’s testing center.  Your advisor in American history thinks you need to take an examination on the Civil War?  Fine.  Go to the testing center on Thursday (before your internship at the local biotech company), and take the test. Does it have an essay component, with a time limit? Fine.  The testing center’s computers allow you to write the test without having access to your cellphone, wikipedia or other outside materials.  You take the multiple choice section, and write the essay, under the guidance of a trained test administrator.  The tests are open-source, and questions come from a body of questions submitted and randomized by American history teachers from across the country.  Passing one of these tests can be scored and scaled against learners of all ages from all over the country, and it’s not based on some vague formula invented by the teacher the night before the test.  Hmmm.

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