Published Online: January 20, 2010

Giving Classrooms a Purpose

I read, hear, and even write a lot about “techniques” that are supposed to improve schools and classroom instruction.

Professional development books, workshops, and teacher hand-outs at staff meetings are filled with lots of ideas on how to use multiple intelligences, technology, and specific instructional strategies with students that have special needs. The list seems endless.

These techniques are obviously important. I wonder, though, if we teachers and our students, our schools and districts might be better off if we spent a little more time focusing on the cultural orientation of our institution. In other words, shouldn’t we question our ways of thinking?

A few months ago, I noted the 100th anniversary of Peter Drucker’s birth. A renowned business and management philosopher, writer, theorist, and analyst, Drucker is considered “the first real management guru.” In an interview this fall on the public radio program Marketplace, Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter shared that Drucker’s greatest contribution to organizational behavior is the idea that corporations need to have a mission, a sense of purpose in order to be successful.

When I talk about a “cultural orientation” or a “way of thinking,” I mean something like what Drucker proposed—a sense of mission and purpose. And I mean for us to have a mission beyond simply, “whatever is good for kids.”

In my previous career, I was a community organizer. Before we did anything, we would ask ourselves these two questions:

• Does our action help develop leadership among local residents?

• Are we honoring the father of modern-day community organizing Saul Alinsky's "Iron Rule"? Alinsky famously said, “Never do for someone what they can do for themselves. Never.”

If the answer to either of these questions was “no,” then we either dropped our plan or we revised it. This way of thinking often resulted in what some might consider missed opportunities or decisions that didn’t appear to result in an immediate benefit.

But in the long term, staying true to our mission often resulted in the emergence of self-realized community groups that had confident leaders and committed members. These groups were more successful in gaining affordable housing, creating jobs that paid a living wage and benefits, and building safe neighborhoods than other organizations that never developed their own sense of identity and purpose.

Schools and classrooms need a mission and a shared way of thinking to be effective. I’d like to give three examples of what I mean for the classroom, a school, and in the context of our connection to parents.

In a Classroom

In the first part of each school year in most of my classes, I lead a discussion with students asking whether they want our class to be a “community of learners” or a “classroom of students.” On our overhead, I enter the choices in side-by-side columns and give examples of the difference between the two.

In a classroom of students, a teacher does most of the talking. In a community of learners, students work in small groups and are co-teachers. In a classroom, people laugh when others make mistakes, but in a community, people are supported when they take risks. In a classroom, the teacher always has to be the one to keep people focused. In a community, students take responsibility for keeping themselves focused.

At this point, most students will say that their previous classes have been more like a classroom of students. I then ask students to share what other differences they might see between the two types. Here are a couple of examples my students gave this year:

• In a classroom, “students start a fight and end up hurting each other.” In a community, “they don’t start a fight, they talk it out.”

• In a classroom, “the only way to succeed is doing exactly what the teacher says.” In a community, “you have more than one choice in succeeding.”

After adding to the list, students then decide which one they’d rather have. No group has ever chosen to be the “classroom of students” option.

By starting with this cultural orientation or way of thinking, students develop their own approaches or techniques for how the class will operate. What emerges is a lens for looking at numerous issues throughout the school year. It’s my job to honor my own rules of community organizing, to promote leadership development and self-sufficiency by respecting their judgments and desires.

In a School

Ted Appel, our high school principal, has done a tremendous job of working with teachers over the past few years to develop their mission. Basically, it’s not acceptable for students to not do well. Everybody must succeed. That way of thinking operates almost universally among the faculty, and it is prevalent among students as well.

Our tutoring project, which allows students to hire (and fire) teachers of their choice, is an example of this way of thinking. We didn’t set up an after-school tutoring center and then blame the students for not showing up. Ted and our staff began with the idea that some students needed help, and then they looked for the barriers that might keep students from getting the most effective assistance. They thought outside the box and had the courage to give students the chance to control their own destinies.

Engaging Parents

In my book Building Parent Engagement In Schools, I highlight the differences between parent involvement and parent engagement. When schools involve parents, the primary involvement tool is the mouth. When they engage parents, the primary tool is the ear. Involvement is often about one-way communication: educator to parent. But engagement is about two-way conversation. The invitation to become involved is often through irritation, since educators challenge parents to do something the schools want them to do. With engagement it’s often about agitation—challenging parents to do something that they themselves say they want to do.

Here again, the strategy begins with a commitment to leadership development and self-sufficiency, and it produces a community with a shared sense of purpose that guides its members.

I wonder how many schools and districts are overlooking Drucker’s admonition to develop a sense of mission or purpose that defines why they exist and what greater good is being served? How many instead focus their attention on tasks and techniques that they think might produce short-term results, without developing the cultural compass that every community needs to guide their continuing journey?

Techniques are important, but no laundry list of them will ever be long enough to help administrators, faculties, or students resolve the challenges they face each day, to the benefit of everyone involved.

I wonder if faculties, schools, and districts should devote more time and energy to developing compasses and less time rushing down the road, never certain where we are, or what we will do when we round the next bend.

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