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?