Design a School

Over the Thanksgiving break, I hung out with quite a few teenagers in an unofficial capacity.  And I was very careful to ask all of them a few questions:

  • What would a school look like if you designed it?
  • What would you learn there?
  • How would the school be organized?

The answers I got were intriguing.  First of all, every teenager assumed I meant “build a school” instead of “design a school.”  All of them started with a description of the building: Modern.  And remarkably, every single building they described looked remarkably like a Modern, industrial school does now: hallways, classrooms, lots of glass and metal, stairwells, lockers, and so on.

When I dug a little deeper, though, and they understood that I was asking about “what would you do at a school that you, yourself, designed?” they immediately went off on a different tangent.  Now they were no longer concerned about architecture.

No, now they were concerned about how they would be controlled. One girl said that she wanted a school where the bad kids would be forced to go to detention, and ‘made to behave.’  Keep in mind, she goes to one of the best public schools in the country; the bad kids are not exactly shooting each other in the surrounding neighborhoods.  A boy with a strong interest in film-making said that he wanted to be forced to learn ‘whatever the curriculum said I should learn’.  And another girl thought it would be best if ‘I were made to learn whatever’s important in school.’

And as far as organization… well.  They thought there should be a principal, and some administrators, and every classroom would need a teacher… And there should be regular placement tests, to figure out where a student should be placed or allowed to learn…

In other words, the schools they ‘designed’ on their own thought process looked exactly like the schools we’ve been decrying and trying to reform for forty years. They had the same disciplinary models, the same physical structures, the same curriculum imposed from above.  Two students, both with an interest in film and cameras, more or less scrubbed movie-making and art from their school’s official curriculum.  Because, as one boy said, “that’s not what school is for.  Is it?”

Yet he was hard-pressed to explain what school was for, other than learning stuff like reading, writing, and literature.  All of these dozen or so kids were.  Discipline, rote curriculum, new and modern buildings, similar organization to today…. that was my takeaway from the exercise.  They were, all of them, literally unable to imagine another possibility than the system we have now.

So I see articles and screeds and rants about how to fix education, and I have to wonder: what do all these reformers and champions of education and politicians using the sorry state of American education have in mind?

Because the evidence is, the American educational system is so broken that no one currently enmeshed in it can imagine a reality other than the one we’ve got.  Which of course means that when something new DOES come along, the current establishment is going to get blindsided with all the force of the Black Death’s arrival in Genoa in AD 1347.

So go on, I dare you: ask the kids for yourselves.  Let me know what you find out.  The questions are at the top of the page.

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  1. I had my 8th grade advisees for a Study Hall on Tuesday, and I tried these questions out on them. It’s not the first time I’ve tried to have a “problems with school” conversation within the school structure. The setting and environment certainly warp the response. Often, kids start off timidly, as if you’ve posed this question as part of some nefarious trap. (“Hah! You don’t like science?!? ALL SCIENCE FOR YOU!) In the process of convincing them that you’d really like to hear their unrestricted thoughts, MS students will often swing radically the other direction, but without any conviction for their revolution.

    Again, everything is seen as a modification to an already known recipe. Start at 10am and run till 5, rather than 8 – 3. Put “real” classes before lunch, and then an open-choice elective section afterwards. Open up the electives to include real specialization rather than the broad MS classes (Art, Drama, Music). Let students choose what kind of English class they want to take – focusing on Poetry, Journalism, Novels, Satire. Interestingly, there were no equivalent suggestions for any other discipline. In their minds, English is a broad canvas full of many loosely connected, but non-sequential ideas and topics. Math, Science and History are by contrast fully static and linear bodies of information, and must be consumed in the proper order and at the proper time.

    The fundamental attitude was one of distrust for themselves and their own desires. If they wanted school to be a certain way, then obviously it *had* to be unworkable.

    L:”Maybe the kids should help make the rules and the schedule?”
    M: “That’s a fail.”
    From two kids who would both be great students to have on an honors, rules or scheduling group.

    My takeaway line was this:
    “We should make it a school where kids aren’t scared to be different.”

    Too true.

  2. After showing the kids the NBC report, Deep Dive, I asked them to do just this (last year). I asked them to redesign the classroom only. It was awesome. Desk that fold into the floor when not needed. Rolling chairs to move easily from one station to the next. A workroom with the supplies truely needed. Access to the library via the classroom. An outside patio to use for thinking and discussions. Of course, computers for everyone available all the time. A cabinet in the classroom to hold the computers for easy access and recharge. A loft for silent reading or studying. Lots of windows for natural light. A private office for the teacher so students could talk privately with him/her. Smart boards. Several used a pod structure for the whole school. It was fascinating to hear from them when their restraints from tradition were finally taken away. It took a few tries to get them to this point.

    • I like the fold-down desks, rolling chairs, a workroom and access to loft, library, patio, and smart boards. The private office is a god(s)send.

      I think the great difficulty with these kinds of redesigns is that it presumes a wholesale demolition effort to get rid of the old school, and replace it with new schools. And isn’t it interesting that your students started with architecture and space re-design? They instinctively understand that the space as currently established is inadequate for what their parents and teachers want them to do. But they start with architecture, every time.

    • Socrates was great at such questions. Which is part of the reason why the Athenians convicted him and put him to death. 🙂

      The truth is, rethinking how education works has been the goal of philosophers for thousands of years. But the actual redesign of education is usually left to the dictators. The ordinary educators, like Rudolf Steiner, who actually DO redesign schools, often have the school burned down around their ears by left- or right-wing agitators and reactionaries.

    • It looks like an interesting website, Kim. Thanks for posting.

      But I don’t see much there about how to rethink and redesign schools to take advantage of a student’s natural tendency to learn. And I think that’s the ultimate problem.

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