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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Education Transformation Plan: Designing Backwards

Yesterday I had a great conversation about what it takes to move a big box store into a more community orientated store. The article that was referenced gave a gradual/step by step approach to change that evolved the big box store instead of just tearing it down and building up the new model all at once. It was not the model alone that need to change, but a culture of a community also, and this is never going to be done right, if it is done from the top down quick fix model. Even if the model is better, more humane, more localized, we as humans do not respond well to big changes. Fear and anxiety easily bubble up when change is done TO people not WITH people.

This conversation reminded me of Ed reform on both sides, we seem to seek transformation as a sweeping change of the system, yet what we should be doing is creating a plan (something not often seen in the alternative movement) for overall change and design backwards. I think we all know what our end results (I say resultS because we know one size will not fit all) would look like, but what do we do about it. How do we empower people to start making the culture changes needed? How do we help give a guide without it being a list of requirements?

Oh wait this is the same challenge we tack in our classrooms, with our students! It is what so many of the posts have been about last week. We have in the past talked about putting up a FAQ page on the COOP, maybe we can start brainstorming how we can systematically transform the cultures of our schools to less factory/big box mentality and more human scale/ learning/live driven that help to guide the change that is needed. We are doing that already in our own ways, but I think if we start to put the nuggets of wisdoms out and actually name them and work with them, we might be able to help those who are comfortable with the “status quo” or are fearful of something different might be able to digest them a little better. It needs to be pragmatic and also of varying degrees of participation (much like this site.) Small steps often lead to big steps. We talked about making our ideas “Shinny” and “Bright”, just like WFS was able to market itself….. so lets do that!

That being said, this type of conversation happens everyday, it has been a issue for activist for years. Fundentmentally we have been trying to get at the question, how do we make big changes or scale up without being beaten down with every defeat even when change is not happening. Both Adam and Kirsten have showcased the different sides of the coin, on side you continue to seek like minded change agents and seek to create environments that are transformed and on the other you continue to fight inside the trenches for those that can’t fight for themselves and hope that soon the system will change.

This is a conversation that is rooted in the alternative education movement and it is a hard one. But can we have both, if so how?

It is the HOW that we can start to offer, some of have actually made change, have open schools, have transformed learning, have had great teaching moments. These are a great starts! and each of us, has knowledge to share!

  • I know Joe Bower has started collecting stories about getting rid of grades,
  • David has start a site for teacher’s video.
  • Edna is brilliant at making top 10 list and relaying her students insights into teaching and learning,
  • Adam at insights in how to help save the planet and so much more,
  • Kirsten at connecting the voices,
  • Paula about describing classroom situation,
  • Chad at making charters and admins work seem humane and one model of change,
  • Shelly is great at leading discussion via Twitter,
  • Casey at offering great philosophical questions!
  • John at sharing his reflection of being a change agent and a teacher….
  • And all our new writers have shared their brilliance in the comments and their posts!

Okay so that is not the full list but you get the point. We are a talented, wide ranging group and we need to start putting that wisdom into tangible steps that can be acted on….

What are your ideas? Oh can we make our work more pragmatic and start to build this work and more importantly give others tools and tangible things that can be done today….

how can we starting helping others to figure out “how to educated our young?” not just school them!

Hope this starts something,




13 thoughts on “Education Transformation Plan: Designing Backwards

  1. This is a really good point David. Without giving people come concrete steps they can take, we can argue about transforming the school system as much as we want, but it won’t change. We also want these points to be things that they can actually implement, without being afraid of losing their jobs or finding the process too difficult.

    Here are some of my ideas.

    1. Start engaging your colleagues about these school transformation ideas. I’ve been talking a lot at my school about homework, for example, and my views about it, and the result was a really engaging 30 minute discussion between 10 teachers in the staff room about our homework policies. There were a couple of teachers that decided to take another look at their homework policy, and so I’ve made an immediate (but small) impact at my school.

    2. When you have the opportunity, talk to your students about these ideas. Ask them for ways you can change your own classroom, within the confines of the box you work in, so that it becomes more of a positive space for your students.

    3. One lesson at a time, try and make what you do more student and learner centered. Look at what you do from their perspective more often. You can still meet the state standards in a student centred constructivist classroom, I know because I’ve done it myself when I worked in NYC.

    Let’s all see if we can think of some non-radical suggestions as places to start the transformation of our individual schools.

    Posted by dwees | November 4, 2010, 8:18 pm
  2. These are great David,

    One simple one I am think is a great starting point, is just to ask your friend, neighbors, students, teachers….

    What they think the Purpose of education is? and then follow it up, with a Why?

    Engaging in this type of questioning helps with the demystification process. We don’t have to agree with the purpose, but we should at least start to unpack what are own beliefs are, and understand how our schools represent them.

    So as a friend,

    How are those suggestions related to what you think the purpose of education is?

    By the way 2 is one of the most powerful things we can do! Getting the children involve in the discussion is the first step in making a classroom student centered!

    Great start!


    Posted by dloitz | November 4, 2010, 8:34 pm
  3. Here’s another place to start. Just watched John Kotter present about changing systems here:

    He suggests that there are 8 fundamental steps for large scale change ( I think we are at step 6 which suggests that your post is completely relevant, we need to start with small changes which will incrementally improve the situation.

    Posted by dwees | November 4, 2010, 10:19 pm
  4. This is a good conversation. I’ve been invited to be on a panel next week that is looking at Social Innovation, and some of the barriers to scaling up small innovations. In my own school, I’m attempting to move a small arts-based innovation out to a wider number of schools. I find that you have to “get in the face” of upper administration quite a bit. I’ve needed to invite people into my classroom, reach out to parents to help with the communication piece and make sure that I’ve followed some of the threads that connect our provinical ministry of education (specifically around the arts) to the funding that our district receives. Its public information, but it can sometimes take a little digging.

    Advocacy is always time consuming, isn’t? And you sometimes need to go out and find a stronger anti-perspirant. And the whole thing can often be discouraging.

    I like the suggestions made in the previous comments. They respect the fact that large-scale change is exactly that: large-scale; it’s not going to happen easily, without a great deal of resistance, or overnight. Large institutions are well protected against change.

    BUT–and I’ve found this to be important–even places that look inert from a distance, have a great deal of activity happening inside. I have found it helpful to connect with that energy and find work there…avoiding all the time the possibility that your thinking may be so far ahead that you either sound like an alien or, worse, the enemy!!!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | November 5, 2010, 5:40 am
    • Stephen, You sound like a wonderful educator and leader.


      Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2010, 10:36 pm
      • So Kirsten,

        How do we subvert the a more holistic purpose of education into the conversation in a way that makes the Functionalist believe we are continuing their cause, while actually undermining its control…. how do we plant seeds of holistic invasion species?

        I think we need to start a little Johnny Holistic Seed across the country…. one seed at a time….

        I know you have wisdom on this matter, one is one pragmatic step we can take.


        Posted by dloitz | November 6, 2010, 7:07 pm
  5. I’ve been talking a lot about process lately with my mentors “onsite” in my F2F life. Part of me appreciates tremendously groups’ attention to inclusive, action-oriented process and consensus; part of me remains deeply invested, if that’s the right word, in a maverick mindset where only the intuitive leaps lead to sweeping innovation. Organizing mavericks is never fun. They might be like the Sith.

    From somewhere amidst the tension between those two value sets, let me suggest a killer app rather than a killer process. And it’s really not all that killer or innovative. Like so much of what we should be doing, it’s been done before, but fear has kept it from scaling.

    We need an education Twitter like Edmodo aspires to be an education FaceBook. We need kids to carry 1:1 mobile devices in school and to be engaged with a worldwide network of peers whom we encourage them to contact with questions and problems ranging from, “What’s 3 x 3?”, to, “Who knows how to farm?”, to, “Who knows how to get local businesses to donate materials and/or products to a school or children’s hospital?” Imagine if kids carried a ubiquitous hybrid of electronic and human computing into every school, every class, and every problem. Imagine if just a handful of schools started – the app would carry with it the authentic collaboration, global awareness, and, problem-solving we struggle to systematize in American public education. The social element will help engage kids in ways an as-of-yet un-sentient (I think) Internet does not. A kid who feels unsure of him or herself in spelling, reading, or search strategies would instead enjoy interacting with peers. These interactions would make more meaningful connections between kids and new content than repeated rote exposures in school. The time saved in struggle could be re-invested in solutions.

    There are issues to be worked out, but none so important as how to start yesterday. Twitter is old. Schools aren’t putting it in kids’ hands like this. Traditional skills process kills progress. We need some educators and schools to step up and find out what happens to kids learning when the three Rs don’t get in the way. Teach kids to read in parallel, by all means, but don’t insist that they master that behavior before being allowed access to the world and before the world benefits from them.

    Package social media in such a way that it seems innocuous and let kids’ use drive change. Stop worrying about the right answers (which will arrive nearly instantaneously) and start worrying about posing the right questions to kids.

    We just need a killer app.

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 5, 2010, 5:58 am
  6. Hi David and All,

    This is a great and challenging post. I like David W’s ideas as a place to start a lot. Let’s keep talking with each other and with the kids/learners. Visit other classrooms. Other schools and talk with educators. Teach kids socratic dialogue or othr tools for critical inquiry and take on real issues such as the conditions of their oppression. Etc etc.

    I’m a little less enthralled with Chad’s hi-tech approach (though I greatly respect your wisdom, Chad, and admit that I often overlook the potential power of technology.) I tend to think the kids don’t need more access to an ever wider community but rather need to tune in more deeply to the community (both human and biotic) in their immediate surroundings, and even within themselves.

    A couple of small steps I’d suggest:

    1. Let’s take the kids the hell out of the classroom whenever possible. Can you challenge yourself to move your class out of doors once a month? Once a week? More? I think getting out from under those fluorescent lights and off the linoleum or industrial carpeting instantly democratizes the learning environment and exponentially increases the possibilities for cultiviating a sense of wonder.

    2. Close the textbooks and can the worksheets. Again these small gestures, even if done occasionally (textbook free Tuesday? No worksheet Wednesday) humanizes the learning experiences and increases the chance that learner and teacher are connecting in personal, relevant and meaningful (meaning-filled) ways, rather than according to some for-profit publisher’s hellish interpretation of national standards.

    3. This is a scary one…ready? Don’t administer The Tests. Yup, I said it. Take Gatto’s Bartleby Project pledge and simply say, I’d prefer not to. If necessary use your leave days for test week. Suggest to parents they might choose to pull their kids out for test days. Whatever you can do that you think won’t get you fired. And encourage colleagues to do the same. This is a biggie, I know, but have courage and resist if you can. If 10% of teachers joined in with this project what would be the result. Can we imagine?


    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 7, 2010, 10:44 am
    • I’m all for your suggestions, Paul. Given that traditional schools tend to keep kids at desks in the classrooms – which is a patently asocial set-up despite the physical presence of a teacher and peers – I’m all for disruptive technologies that get students out of classroom by any means, including metaphorical ones. I wouldn’t recommend that a school with a robust community service program replace it with Twitter time; I would recommend that a school unwilling to let its kids out into the community use social media to provide kids with some idea of what’s possible to learn, create, and achieve when you collaborate with others. If technology hooks otherwise socially staid schools into doing so – or helps geographically disperse or isolated ones to do so – then let’s use any useful technology that unleashes learning from its traditional tethers – the ones you rightly call out.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | November 7, 2010, 11:27 am
  7. Paul, I know this is an old post now, but have you managed to avoid administering tests without getting fired? I’d love to hear that story.

    Posted by Mindy | August 19, 2011, 3:47 am


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