NECC ’09: WildFire vs. Bricks & Mortar

I spent last weekend learning how to spin fire at a tent city in northeastern Connecticut.  On Thursday, three hundred people showed up to set up more than 18 tents, a wifi spot, a tent lunch room, and open-air classrooms for teaching performers of ages from 12 to 74 how to play with fire in front of live audiences. I saw classes on poi spinning, juggling, marketing, accounting for business expenses, building a business plan, costuming, making publicity materials, explaining your show to fire marshals and fire safety protocols. On Monday morning, the school instructors fed everyone breakfast, packed up the school and put it in the backs of their cars.

It’s not brick and mortar.  It’s not even a year-round school. Yet it has as many attendees as the average school.  It has a full schedule of classes, 8:00 to 5:00pm.  It teaches things valuable and useful to its (self-selecting) attendees. But it’s certainly a school.

Cost for this school, run with volunteer labor from participants (1 two-hour shift over the four days), and some additional time from instructors and leadership: $90.  A school run this way for a 180-day year would cost a little over $8000… comparable to what we pay per student in many state districts (last time I checked, it was around $7800).

What’s the difference? Well, first, these students were self-selecting.  They chose themselves for this school.  The instructors were all proven performers in their fields — not the best necessarily, but active participants in the performance culture.  The students trained intensely for four days, volunteered their time for the school’s operations, and the all knew that they needed to practice the skills on their own time (as opposed to in school). Students were doing homework in the lunch lines, even so.

Our own bricks-n-sticks schools, though, require student presence but not necessarily participation.  We have an unclear sense of what our cultural mission is, in a time when the 19th century model of command-and-control in business and military affairs has given way to a collaborate-communicate-and-cocreate model of business and creativity, and in which the military (while still operating under command-control hierarchies) nevertheless expects its boots on the ground to handle face-to-face communications with average Iraqis and Afghanis.

Is what my students write on college-ruled paper (with hanging chads, no less, as Tom Hunt of the York School in Monterrey, CA, noted to me in the Bloggers’ Café this morning) relevant to the collaborate-communicate-cocreate model?  Or is it still what Samuel Pepys was doing in the 1600s, writing to hand down orders from on high to subordinates down low?

Hmmm.

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