Rethinking School 101: Seven Ideas to Inspire Conversation

I am regularly amazed at the effect that Twitter can have on my thinking. Actually, not so much Twitter itself, but rather the links, shared by others, that I click through on. Today I came across an article by Maria Lorena Lehman at the web site SensingArchitecture.com titled 7 Ways to Keep You Inspired for 2010. Right away the title caught my attention. Isn’t there a constant lament heard from teachers, “How do I inspire my students to learn?” The initial thought is what can teachers do “to” students that will cause them to be inspired. Instead, what if the thinking were turned in the other direction, “What can I, as a teacher, do “to” myself that will cause my students to be inspired?”

The idea of professional development is, in my opinion, predicated on reflective activity. Without asking ones self questions, there can be no growth. What most caught my attention, after the title, was the list of seven items that Lehman identified:

Read A Lot: The more knowledge you can get from other thinkers and innovators (in other fields), the better. Doing this, you will probably find some new ways to approach complex problems, break them down and come up with sophisticated and practical design solutions.
Bend Boundaries: Set creative boundaries for yourself when you are facing a challenging design issue or problem. By exaggerating or minimizing boundaries that you are used to, it will force you to think about your design dilemma in new ways. For instance, give yourself a small allotted amount of time in which to “solve” a design issue. Or, pretend that you have three times the budget than you actually have. This might just free your mind, getting you to think of a totally different way of solving your original problem.
Streamline your Organization: Become an active thinker. During or after visiting a site, another great building, reading a magazine or even having a discussion with a fellow architect , make it a habit to record the most important thoughts that will spark your future action(s). Organizing your ideas will result in better ways for you to create new ones. Organization actually can spark creativity and innovation.
Switch Your Perspective: While working on the day-to-day details that surface for specific building projects, don’t forget to take that eagle-eyed view. Think of how Norman Foster or Zaha Hadid would approach your design problem. Or think of what a good architectural critic might say about your design challenge.
Get Out More: Although having a consistent design setting (like your office) is very conducive to being creative, so too is changing your scenery. Try thinking about a design problem in a totally different place. Go see a great architectural lecture. Or go have a brainstorming session with your colleague in a new setting.
Remember Your Colleagues: Don’t forget about the people around you. They can help you stay inspired too. Coming up with new ways to communicate with your colleagues to generate creative ideas can be quite motivational.
Set Your Goals: Don’t lose sight of your goals, whatever they may be. Be sure to revisit them often — both so your time is spent working toward them and so that you remember why you are doing what you do. One of the keys to maintaining inspiration, is also to reward yourself. After you reach certain goals be sure to enjoy them, take a break and then use that energy to renewing your momentum.

Here are the connections I see and the resulting ideas:

Read, a lot: Another constant lament of the classroom teacher is, “I don’t have enough time to do what I am suppose to do, when I am suppose to read. And read someone from another field or discipline, give me a break, I can’t even read stuff in my own.” Teachers and the administrators who create the conditions within which they work, need to be far more aware of the power in this idea. Teachers must read, read a lot, and read from a wide variety of thinkers. A way to create the possibility of more reading is by allowing teachers to bank credit necessary for re-certification or as part of professional development requirements.

Bend boundaries: This strategy would require administrators to allow teachers greater autonomy (and of course that responsibility would flow up the “chain of command” as well by necessity). School has become an environment of ever increasing constrains. Learning however happens best in an environment that allows for malleable boundaries. I remember a scene in The School of Rock, Jack Black and Joan Cusack were in the cafeteria (okay, Black’s character was rather manipulative with duplicity motives) when he floated an idea about taking the students on a field trip:

Black: Listen Roz, I was thinking about organizing a field trip. What do you think.

Cusack: Well . . . substitutes, as a rule, do not organize field trips.

Black: But, I figure I’m gonna be here for awhile . . .

Cusack: Well, that remains to be seen. Have you met the other teachers?

Black: No. But, the kids could learn by getting out of the classroom.

Cusack: It’s more complicated than that. There’s safety issues. Parent’s need to be notified. It’s against school policy.

An environment that is rigid can’t withstand change, change will destroy it. “Bendable boundaries” must become policy for learning to thrive. Rigid boundaries, like those in the school in the movie, stifle creativity, innovation, and ultimately do harm to students learning. Teachers must be given latitude to, not to think outside the box, but remove the box from their line of sight. The response from administrators shouldn’t be all the reasons “why not,” but should be “how do I help make this happen.” By affording their teachers greater autonomy, through bendable boundaries, administrators will be modeling for the school and community how to view and treat teachers as the professionals they are.

Streamline the organization: Power sharing! This too, plays into the idea of greater teacher autonomy. We need to find ways in education that allow teachers to make more substantive decisions. This will require divorcing education from the testing culture that currently controls it and most of our learning systems. I was tweeting with Vanessa Miemis (Blog, Twitter) this morning about an article she had tweeted about in SmashingMagazine.com titled The Death of the Blog. One of the quotes in the article spoke volumes:

While, yes, this is a redesign of sorts, I consider it much more a rethinking. ~ Jason Santa Maria

The article was about rethinking the way blogging is done. The thought occurred to me that this way of thinking, supported by action, would allow teachers to move away from textbook dominated (controlled!) curricula and encourage “collaborative content sourcing.” This would result in cost savings and streamlining the decision making process, especially at the classroom level. It would also place more authentic sources and voices in the hands of learners than they experience with a textbook.

Switch your perspective: This one is more than obvious. Teacher must ask themselves, “Am I learning anything in all of this?” If a teacher isn’t learning more about the art of teaching each day, well, they need to find a new career. Fast! And they may need some help or a push to realize this truth. Teachers should reflectively consider if they are learners and imagine they are sitting in a desk in their classroom (new perspective) and consider if their students are seeing the model of a successful learner. Do our student’s parents see a learner at the front of their child’s classroom? What about administrators? Community members? Teachers need to look at themselves through the eyes of those watching them and consider what they see.

Get out more: Teachers suffer from a professional debilitating disease, “isolationist.” Many bring the disease on themselves, some resist, but the environment that currently is defined as school is the prime breading ground for this menace. Teachers (and administrators) need opportunities to go out and explore the worlds they teach about in their classrooms. One way to facilitate this exploration would be to move from the idea that teachers should only be paid when they are in the classroom. Hire good teachers, sign them to 12 month contracts, and require them to explore during the summer and give extra credit to those who explore outside their comfort of their discipline. A second way to facilitate this goes one step further. Move to a 12 month academic calendar. Research has indicated that learning occurs more abundantly in an environment that allows for regular breaks. We know this to be true inside the classroom, so why do we continue to blindly follow the traditions established in an agrarian culture. Classrooms that are open for learning for 45 days followed by 15 days of refreshing mind and spirit would, I argue, greatly improve the climate of learning in our schools. Having four breaks throughout the year would afford a greater diversity of options for exploration. Again, hire good teachers, sign them to 12 month contracts, and require them to explore during their breaks.

Remember your colleagues: I’m not sure I can add more to this, “Don’t forget about the people around you. They can help you stay inspired too. Coming up with new ways to communicate with your colleagues to generate creative ideas can be quite motivational.” Again, this will raise the “time” concern. If administrators want to insure the quality of professional growth in their building(s) they must creatively find ways to allow for collaboration, activity in a Personal Learning Network, or Community of Practice. Nothing is more powerful for professional development than the hallways at an educational conference. Administrators need to intentionally create spaces and environments that encourage an ever increasing amount of collegiality.

Set your goals: Deciding ahead of time what the end will look like is an imperative. The vision must be mastery and the environment must allow that dynamic to exist and flourish. Social promotion must also be abandoned in favor of learning. Learning is a dynamic, fluid event and schools (teachers, administrators, policy makers, and parents) must embrace the idea of ending social promotion, realizing that by doing so they end the abusive practice short changing students. This point also requires that in the act of rethinking school we must first identify its purpose. The old purpose(s) are no longer relevant (and one might argue the old ones were bad anyway). School is no longer relevant because the purpose for its existence and the requirement of attendance have no foundational purpose. This is the most critical discussion in education that we can embark on as we enter a new decade.

Photo Credits:

Reading: Norby at Flickr

Jack Black at imdb.com

Letters: Jason Santa Maria at jasonsantamaria.com

Library: New York Public Library at Flickr

Goals: Dan Callahan at Flickr

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