One of the things I came away with was that we don’t still, after all these years, have good models for talking about what a highly effective school looks like and feels like, from a learner’s point of view. (And I mean all learners–not just kids.) So while I propose, as a given, a short list: the child/student is at the center of the enterprise, and the student is most important person in the school’s dynamic–here are additions to the list–a few other attributes of a highly effective “learning” school. These have been developed after years of culture-watching in breakthrough districts, in writing about innovative school models, and in working with leadership teams now engaged in real innovation.
1. The adults in the building are passionately engaged in learning. In my experience, when the adults in a school are really fired up learners–passionate about their own quirky projects and deeply interested in their students’ learning–a school tends to be high performing and highly effective. Learning more about how kids learn, learning about their own practices as teachers or administrators, learning about stuff that interests them, are consuming passions of the adults in these schools. That passionate learning culture transfers directly to kids.
2. School leaders model their own excitement about learning. In meetings, in walkthroughs, on Twitter, in their own blogs, school leaders talk openly about what they are learning, how they make mistakes, and what excites them about their work. Through this modeling, learning is regarded as pleasurable–not a chore to be gotten through, a checklist to be completed, or something to be excused from for good behavior. The culture highly values expressions of learning–people are fired up about hearing what someone else is curious about, what they just read online, how they could put this together in a project! How that reminds them of something that they read about 3 years ago and let me go look it up online, no here come with me and let’s look at it together.
3. Content is negotiated. Teachers and students together begin to negotiate what is taught and how it is taught, with increasing emphasis on independence and interdependence between learners. Rigor–the drive towards excellence–is increasingly driven by students as they become more and more accomplished at their work, and how to meet the needs of the accountability environment begins to be something shared by students and teachers.
4. Difference is welcomed. Cognitive, social class, ethnic background differences are welcomed. Leaders and teachers see difference as making the school stronger and more healthy, like any biologically-diverse community. What this means in the adult community is that adults also get to be different from each other–and some adults are allowed to be better at the work than others.
5. Practice is public. Adults see each other practice their work, and they talk openly about the issues they are working on. How can you get better at your work if you are not in discussion with other practitioners about the complex business of teaching?
6. Adults share a common understanding of what powerful teaching and learning look like in their building. In highly effective learning schools, adults share explicit language about powerful teaching. They are able to describe where their work falls on Blooms taxonomy, they have ways of talking about how kids are developing expertise, they share vocabulary about cognitive complexity. Examples of excellence are shared.
6. Mistakes are regarded as feedback. There is a mastery orientation towards learning, in which it is understood that learning is developmental, requires practice, study, persistence–but that ultimately everyone can get a lot better at what they are trying to do. That means messing up and trying again.
7. Driven to be the best. George Couros at EDUCON spoke about being a very competitive principal–that he wants to be the best, and he wants his staff to be the best. A great principal is not afraid of greatness in others, and knows that truly brilliant staff members will help make others more brilliant. In less effective schools, administrators or other teachers often are threatened by exceptional practice in one of their colleagues, and strong practitioners have to hide their expertise, skills and knowledge. (We call this, “the land of nice,” where no one can be better than anyone else.) In a highly-effective learning school, expertise is welcomed and prized, and adults openly seek out the expertise of their colleagues.
Many teachers and school leaders unfortunately, just aren’t very interested in learning. They seem to regard it as a chore, a way to force kids to behave, something that has to be done to kids to get them ready for adult life. They lack intellectual curiosity about research in the field, breakthroughs in cognitive research. My belief is that until teachers become deeply interested in their own work, and are driven to make their practice better and better, school will not really be about learning for anyone. It will be a chore, it will lack magic. It will be controlled by others.
What does your school look like? Is it a highly effective learning environment for you? Why or why not?