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Philosophical Meanderings

Hospice for schools

Hugging Salt Shakers by HarlanH

Hugging Salt Shakers by HarlanH

I have a weird relationship with public schools. In many ways, they made me (or I shaped myself to conform with their expectations of me) and – of late – I have tried to unmake and remake myself in response to them.

That being said, I love the idea of a place where kids and adults can learn and compose together in a sustained community. Moreover, I am an unabashed fan of educators who choose to do good inside the system despite its pressure on them to do wrong unto children. I think a lot of meaningful learning can happen in schools where there are people willing to let kids and adults learn meaningfully.

I remain at once hopeful and skeptical. Can enough of our kids connect with enough teachers in joyful, democratic classrooms to find lasting value in school? Can they find the kind of value that would inspire them to change schools for their kids? To change society?

What do we do for the kids kept out of such classrooms? For the educators who think they cannot run those classrooms? For all the adults and kids who think schools shouldn’t even have those classrooms?

I think a lot about the idea of organizational hospice from Walk Out, Walk On. I think about our competing responsibilities to kids and schools. I feel like I’m playing with a broken Rubik’s Cube.

How do we keep school from digressing further into a series of zero-sum calculations?

The answer, I’m sure, is messy and dependent on the convergence of enough pro-learning factors in the right places at the right times: educational transformation as slime mold.

But what do we do while we wait for the slime? What kind of hospice can we offer schools and the people in them?

Here are some suggestions up for debate:

Flatten school systems. Hierarchies represent schools’ primary obstacle to innovation. Sorting kids and sorting adults precludes lean, nimble, iterative teaching and learning. Think of all the valuable teaching and learning projects people would be willing to concentrate on in schools if they didn’t have to conform to traditional scheduling and grouping. Imagine how quickly design-thinking-trained teachers and students could recreate learning spaces and methods if they did not have to wait for approval or a transfer or the opportunity to change academic tracks.

Learning is not the same thing as a busy intersection that needs to be managed for people’s safety. If we believe in the teachers and students in our buildings, we shouldn’t give them the proverbial green light; we should do away with traffic lights so no one is frustrated by a red light or uses it as an excuse to stagnate. The traffic lights we have now – even when we call them “assessments” – are really about manipulating the traffic patters of people in schools to create oppositional flows and false distances between people – artificial scarcities of space and vectors through which to work and learn.

If we can imagine schools in which everyone is moving together in the hugely encompassing direction of learning, then we can imagine schools without traffic patterns based on the artificial “needs” of traditional management practices. We can imagine learning as a community on the move – as a community on the march in solidarity with kids and learning.

How do we structure our school divisions for that? How do we allow them to recombine our teaching corps and student populations on a project-based basis? Even if we say we can’t, other learning organizations and platforms can. How do we do more than pay lip service to innovation in education if we are unwilling to compete with learning organizations that help valued participants create value for themselves and others? That make things?

As much as we love the idea of universal public education providing equity for all our children, can we admit that we don’t need so many traffic lights – that we don’t need an orderly, just-so transition to equity? That it would be better to iterate and improve upon equity daily rather than wait for its planned release?

Can we adopt a lateral leadership amongst all educators – and students – that can read what is valuable in teaching and learning today?

Half the day. Create a vacuum and see what emergent behavior comes out of the community. What do our communities want more: whole-day instruction or school systems nearer the black than the red?

Reduce the school day to half its time and spend that time on whatever test prep is necessary to maintain accreditation – but keep transportation scheduled for the end of the school day. Negotiate with tax-payer groups, legislators, and executives to fund a state-of-the-art shortened day around life-support for schools. Open the schools in the afternoons and evenings to individual teachers (or teams of educators) and learning organizations able to come in with donations or grants to pay for rent and the materials and personnel needed to create learning spaces and opportunities that provide STEAM and humanities enrichment for all students who stay.

Let the groups and participating students figure out what to offer when and where. Make every opportunity as open and tuition-free as possible. Bus kids home from enrichment. Let parents who have the means to pick up their kids and offer enrichment outside school do so to lower enrichment group sizes and costs. Let’s excise standardization’s “just the facts” approach to teaching and learning from authentic and meaningful work of lasting value to students ands their communities.

Let’s minimize test prep by honing it if we’re not going to throw it off anytime soon. If we are unwilling to strike in a sustained way and in massive numbers against standardized education, can we make test-prep as efficient and non-invasive as possible for us and our kids? Can we organize a school system around sustenance level work for accreditation in order to challenge communities and free up educators to provide better learning opportunities for all kids during what used to be school hours?

Are teachers willing to be entrepreneurs and compete for funding for part of the day? Do communities and foundations (or even schools) value this work enough to fund it as part of what is or once was the school day – in school buildings?

Can we explore this idea further: some of us want to expand the school day because we are grossly inefficient with the time and methods and assessments we use now? Could scalability actually be a radical response to inefficiency that seeks to treat inefficiency by doing more of what is inefficient? And could meaning and community and trust and play be the learning efficiencies we need, but choose not to seek, as a system?

Flip discipline. Without abandoning our responsibilities to limit violence, intoxication, and other harm, we should put kids in charge of “disciplining” themselves as a way to preclude power struggles in the classroom, as a way to enfranchise kids’ feet, and as a way to re-populate, fund, and staff arts programs.

In response to routine matters of disobedience, why not let kids check themselves out of classes in which they become dis-regulated and provide them with gardens, maker-spaces, service opportunities, studios, and workshops instead of in-school suspension rooms?

If we can agree that angry people sometimes need time apart, if we can agree that school should’t be babysitting, and if we can agree that it’s “bad” teaching to let a kid sit around with zero interaction from a caring adult in the classroom, then why not provide kids with alternative spaces in which they are willing to do something with their time at school?

Schools would be stronger if we had to work to be the people with whom kids want to learn in the communities they want to join. I don’t think we do this systemically; I do think we could do this badly; I think if we did it authentically – if we let kids create value from school – then we’d restore faith in our schools, regardless of whether or not that faith should have been lost in the first place.

Caring for kids does not include ignoring or assailing what they think. If we – as a public school system – competed for our kids, maybe we could extend schools’ life without resorting to control. If we could pay more attention to what our kids want to do, we could spend less time coercing them to do what vendors want them to do.

I don’t know that any of this would help the system accomplish its goals, but I trust that these ideas would help kids accomplish theirs.

While we wait and work for what comes next, how else can we help?

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


5 thoughts on “Hospice for schools

  1. Chad,

    I always look forward to your take on matters since you raise interesting concepts and questions. I wonder whether ‘system justification’ is a factor involved in the logic giving rise to apparent aporias in relation to education, schools and youths, and I pose a question for thought.

    What if the voice of Carl the Janitor in The Breakfast Club disloses the fear-beneath-the-discussion?

    Vernon : You think about this: when you get old, these kids – when *I* get old – they’re going to be running the country.
    Carl : Yeah.
    Vernon : Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.

    Carl : I wouldn’t count on it.

    Whether around the world, in specific regions or nation-states, or our local communities, the current situation is the making of we, the adults together with the adults who preceded us. I think the time has come for adults to stop foisting their/our problems upon “The Children”, whether yours, mine, theirs or ours. They are not “our” future; they are their own futures. They are not our property, and we do not know them except to the extent we have shared experiences with them.

    What if “the real” Breakfast Club is comprised of Oedipus, Electra, Icarus, Maximum Ride, Katniss and Harry Potter. What if they get out of control? Perhaps they should. Perhaps we should help them because significant forces will operate to counter the modest assistance we might lend them through small acts of resistance, rebellion, revolt…


    Posted by Brent Snavely | April 27, 2012, 8:06 am
  2. Thanks, Brent – I am happy for folks to go out of schools’ control, especially when that means going somewhere outside the schools’ spheres of influence. I am, perhaps in a way that hobbles me, concerned with what goes on in schools, as well. I don’t mean to offer suggestions that justify school. I hope that suggestions like these nudge kids’ experiences inside schools towards agency and democracy. I understand if my suggestions come across as something like, “If only schools did X, Y, and Z, they’d be fine.” However, I don’t believe that. There are fundamental biases built into our public school system that no amount of pedagogical props can support. It’s magical thinking that holds things up right now.

    Maybe hospice is a wrongheaded metaphor in that it connotes sympathy for (and complicity with) the dying organization at hand.

    I feel like part of what I want to come to terms with is acceptable action situated somewhere in the recursive maze of public schooling and the paths to freedom radiating from it.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 27, 2012, 10:39 am
  3. Hi Chad…

    I so appreciate folks that suggest solutions as opposed to just “what’s wrong” with the system.

    A few ideas after reading your post:

    1. Like the idea of “flattening out.” However, this is going to be much more difficult to do in a culture that is built, based, and thrives in hierarchies. I can’t think of any ancient or modern system that does not have a hierarchy. The disadvantage of hierarchies is that they usually are based on power structures. Those at the top of the hierarchy have more power usually than those at the bottom. How could we address that in our schools? Eliminate grade levels? Eliminate proficiency levels? Eliminate grouping student by ability level? What about poverty?… I think we a hardwired to group, and compartmentalize the world around us. We us it as a means to help us understand our world. Flattening schools is a great idea, but we will be up against our culture, civilization, and our own biology? Not that it isn’t worth trying.

    2. Half Day School idea
    Some thoughts. Students interests are very diverse.
    Teachers do not dislike standards in education. However, those teachers that teach to the standards the same way, year after year, because it is comfortable, familiar, etc. are doing themselves and their students a disservice They like standards because they feel it places a cap on their responsibilities. What they are required to teach is finite (and requires no creativity on their part). I think for the half day school idea to work, teachers have to accept the fact that what they are required to teach is infinite. This will require lots of creative energy, and not all teachers will be up to the challenge.

    3. You mentioned power struggles when talking about student discipline. If the schools and classroom were flat, their would be less power struggles. You would not completely eliminate them though because…

    4. …from my experience most students who make poor choices at school are not the result of the school, their peers or teacher. Most poor choices are a result of experiences outside of the classroom and the manifestation of those experiences are exhibited in school because that is where the child spends most of their time. What happens when you send a student who made a poor choice in class to the “Maker Room” when their poor choice is the result of events outside of the school’s control? Does the simple fact that they have to “cool down” remedy the situation?

    5. Finally, what I think I hear you saying in summary, is the primary focus of school should not be the state standards or list of things students should know and be able to do. The primary focus of school should be the individual student’s interests. Sure, the teacher would be asked to weave as many of the standards into those interests that they could while helping the students to learn to develop their own interest more fully, communicate their interests clearly, and tie those interest into the world around them. A school defined by these principles would require teachers that are creative, hard working, and unlimited in their capabilities to learn themselves.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

    Posted by johnpat10 | April 27, 2012, 1:22 pm
    • John, thanks so much for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to the post –

      I think, at the crux of everything, is the tension between being organized by others and organizing ourselves. Can we group ourselves more meaningfully as learners than as teachers, students, and schools? If so, how would that look inside schools until they go away or become something else? Can schools organize or let us or let kids organize by opting in to the communities, relationships, work, and play that fulfills our learning needs?

      How do we secure and protect spaces in schools in which kids learn to self organize through work and play that matters to them? Should we cool down to re-enter environments and relationships that trigger conflict?

      I am thinking about your questions and comments –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 27, 2012, 8:20 pm
      • Hi Chad…

        I’m writing this while I’m doing and thinking a gazillion other things…and just remembered your reply….so before I forget and jump into something else, real quick, you mention, “Can group ourselves more meaningfully as learners than as teachers, students, or schools?” Your question makes me think of ways that we do that now. The ways that children do that now at school, or at home. The way we do that as adults. I kind of believe we have always done that, … “grouped ourselves.” How have we done it in the past? So much of how we have done that in the past is regulated by our environment, i.e families, geographic locations, broad culture background, i.e. Global Western thinking as opposed to Global Eastern thinking.

        Take a look at the playground, it’s happening during recess. It happens in our work environments too. Unfortunately for me, it doesn’t seem to happen so much for me in the neighborhood…How do we improve our “grouping” ability? Our our interests and our needs fare tied to our experiences (families, geographic locations, culture, etc.)? Obviously, one could argue we are doing some of this with our new found tools (communication tools, technology), however, are those “groupings” still, for the most part, tied to those things that regulate our traditional grouping abilities? Does it matter…? I’m thinking out loud here, so bare with me…

        What are the qualities, the positives qualities, that occur now when people group themselves, that we can amplify in a new learning environment (school)? For example, the ability to group, ungroup, and regroup themselves in different groups. That in my opinion is a positive (and you an often see that in the playground, not sure about the adult workspace though…)

        Just trying to push this thread a little more…


        Posted by John Patten (@jpatten) | May 1, 2012, 2:23 pm

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