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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Reimagining Schools: What Does That Mean?

By Peter DeWitt — May 22, 2014 5 min read
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“We have to stop pretending that if we change the structure of schooling we will change anything about schooling. In 6 months it will still be schooling!” John Hattie

There are times when I think corporate reformers want to privatize public schools. Get rid of them all, make a profit, and move on to the next quick buck. I’m sure that there are many who do. Other times I think we all talk about how schools should look different, but cannot agree on what that looks like. Some see a more technologically advanced setting, while others long for the past.

I would certainly like to see more academic freedom on the part of teachers and students, and a whole lot less of an emphasis on testing and achievement. We should be talking about growth.

When we reimagine schools, there is a lot that goes into it. We need to look at the outside, as well as everything that goes on inside. Many critics, educators and politicians want public schooling to look different. They mention the brick and mortar, and talk about how schools are not meeting the needs of students. Data after data, and research after research shows that both sides are right...and both sides are wrong.

I guess I question everyone...

What is wrong with brick and mortar? Our houses are somewhat the same structure that they have always been. Sure, they have inside plumbing and heat, and there are modern contemporary homes that have rooms that seamlessly flow into another. Those houses are usually afforded to the wealthy.

As we walk down the streets in our neighborhood we see storybook homes along with colonial, Cape Cod, Georgian, Mid-Century Modern, Spanish Style and Ranch. They look a little different on the outside, but they still contain the same basic premise. They have walls, furniture, bedrooms, bathrooms and a kitchen.

Public schooling cannot always change the structure. Although it would be nice if those schools in poor urban and rural areas had the same bells and whistles that the wealthier schools have. What they can do is change the instructional practices, learning opportunities, and school climate that they have on the inside. Which is why at the recent Osiris Educational Conferece in London, John Hattie said, “We have to stop pretending that if we change the structure of schooling we will change anything about schooling. In 6 months it will still be schooling!”

Beacon of Hope

For eleven years I taught primary education. I’d love to say that I did everything right. There were times when I used too many dittos, raised my voice too often, and participated in monologue more than dialogue with my students. Like parents trying to figure out parenting one day at a time, I tried to figure out teaching and learning, but made many mistakes along the way.

Other times it was like a master class in elementary education. I engaged in Shakespearian type conversations with my first graders. We were in unison as we learned how to add and subtract. We delved into books by Emily Arnold McCauley and Tomie dePaola, and rewrote endings like we were published authors.

That sort of atmosphere didn’t require us to blow up the brick and mortar. It required us to blow up the way we thought about what first graders could do. I needed to blow up my level of control, and I did not need a computer to do it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a supporter of BYOD, Makerspaces, tablets, iPads and using QR Codes to engage students. However, I also know students who only need a piece of paper, pencil, and a few crayons or an easel, blank canvas and some paint to draw or paint pictures that can rock our worlds.

The barrier to reimagining schools is that it looks different to each student, teacher and parent. We also need to keep in mind that schools serve a need other than learning. Schools provide a safe space for kids who don’t have it at home, or they are the center of the community around them. That brick and mortar can be a beacon of hope for many students and families.

Public Opinion

One of the reasons why we may never move the public school conversation forward is that each side ignores the other. We do have serious issues. There are schools that need more money at the same time there are taxpayers without children, or have children that have long since left school, that don’t or can’t pay more. There are schools that are failing at the same time there are schools that are excelling.

We have citizens who want schools to be held more accountable at the same time we have citizens who want less accountability rules. There are adults who hate school because they were treated unfairly when they attended their brick and mortar palace when they were younger, and other adults who loved and respected their teachers so much they grew up to be teachers.

In a recent OpEd, N.Y. Times writer Frank Bruni wrote,

I was crestfallen on Monday, when a new report by Common Sense Media came out. It showed that 30 years ago, only 8 percent of 13-year-olds and 9 percent of 17-year-olds said that they "hardly ever" or never read for pleasure. Today, 22 percent of 13-year-olds and 27 percent of 17-year-olds say that. Fewer than 20 percent of 17-year-olds now read for pleasure "almost every day." Back in 1984, 31 percent did. What a marked and depressing change."

As we reimagine schools, Mr. Bruni, who also happened to ask if children are too coddled when it comes to the Common Core, was disappointed to see that children read for pleasure less than they did 30 years ago, which ironically was right after A Nation At Risk came out. Perhaps kids read less because we have sucked the fun out of reading.

In the past 30 years we have dissected reading, tested relentlessly to see what level students are at, made them write numerous reports on what they read, and then put them in reading groups based on ability. If we wonder why kids read for pleasure less than before, it’s because school is now more about competing with other countries, and less about creating engaging learning spaces.

As we reimagine schools we should think about that.

In the End

As we continue our monologues about reimagining schools, we need to keep in mind that we are all in different places. Some of us are technologically advanced, while others want a balance between both. Some people imagine a more connected atmosphere while others long for a bit of the past.

What we need to do is make sure that we are involving students in the discussion, and finding ways to not only help them meet their expectations as well as ours, but help them go far beyond those expectations as well.

When we reimagine schools we can keep in mind three questions I learned form John Hattie. Where are we going? How are we going? Where to next?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.