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Five Steps for Building a Better School

—Getty

What is in store for public education in the decades ahead?

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I am convinced that the foundation of a good education is about the concept of building—building a school, building a community, building relationships, and building a sense of self. School works for many students to provide a pathway into the future. It offers a foundation of rich experiences that inspire and form the basis of students’ life stories. Education and schools, however, can never be fully responsible for the outcomes that our students achieve. We cannot blame schools and teachers for the very complex mix of factors that result in any one person’s success in life.

I’ve been thinking recently about how we can alter the school experience for students and staff to better meet the needs of our learning communities. Some of the very structures and experiences that harken back to an earlier era in education may in fact be part of the future of teaching and learning. While it may be counterintuitive in our sophisticated high-tech world, building, manipulating, and creating inside the physical spaces of our school environment are essential in future learning.

"Some of the very structures and experiences that harken back to an earlier era in education may in fact be part of the future of teaching and learning."

So what is in store for students, teachers, administrators, policymakers, and the taxpaying public that supports public education in the decades ahead? I suggest five steps for how school learning communities must move forward to build a better school.

1) Create a culture and environment that attends to the authentic learning experiences of the students.

There are many ways to engage students and teachers in authentic learning experiences. Tending a garden offers students a chance to shape their environment and participate in the natural transformation of seed to plant. Putting on a theater production shapes their experience of others, turning the audience into an integral part of learning. Students might create a gallery or museum display in a real process of honoring history and art. They might build a robot, which encompasses a wide range of design and scientific principles. The list of possibilities for school communities to come together and build something is as universal as it is unlimited.

2) Focus on building community; it matters more than raising test scores.

Our students face a growing list of pressures both real and imagined. School boards and superintendents, in particular, should take note of mental-health and substance-abuse issues and concerns. These are reaching crisis levels across the country. Students of all ages need a compelling experience that engages them in their respective learning communities. Sorting students by test scores will never answer the call for safer and healthier learning communities. Establishing deep and abiding personal relationships and building a sense of community will, and it’s urgently needed.

3) Reshape schools; don’t seek to reform them.

I believe that we can honor the place where we work—be it rural or urban, on the shoreline or in a desert—each with its own unique characteristics and endless possibilities. The beauty of creating an authentic and purposeful education for all students is a universal goal that crosses district lines and income divisions. We can enhance our school environments, and in doing so, enhance each other, our community, and ultimately, ourselves. We can build and be committed to the process of continuously rebuilding our mission and our school.

4) Engage stakeholders in re-envisioning the schoolhouse.

If the future is ever more unpredictable, then is keeping things basically the same still an option? Whether it is the students, teachers, policymakers, or families in any learning community, we must look at which tools we keep and which tools we should discard to help us build our schools. Ultimately, whenever we are faced with the challenge of engaging our students in the process of learning, we are building their skills, building a sense of community, and helping each student to build a sense of self.

Schools of the future may require a new vision for how they are structured, built, and financed. Let us not forget that no matter how schools are set up, it is the relationship between child and adult that stands at its center. From that center, we can work together to impart lessons, build understanding, and build capacity.

5) Don’t see school improvement as a technological fix.

We can have Smart Boards in every room but fail to update the pedagogy used 30 years ago. This is not a criticism of how we engaged our students in the past. In fact, I would argue that a way to engage students that is more than 2,400 years old still applies—even more so today. I am referring, of course, to the Socratic method.

Too often, we ask students to learn something as a way to develop a skill or possess knowledge that can be applied later on in life without explaining when they will need that skill.

Let’s make the process of learning and what takes place in school so compelling that it cannot be replaced by an algorithm. Let us ensure that our students continue to be great problem-solvers, fearless learners, courageous citizens, and creative thinkers who contribute greatly to the world around them.

If students become engaged in solving real-world problems, then wouldn’t they be better prepared to build their future? If they had permission to alter the physical space in their school, wouldn’t they alter their view of school in the process? I believe that with each passing generation, we inherit a space, with a covenant to uphold the values and principles of those who have come before us. We have an opportunity to build on their contributions while we forge our own. Is it not true that at all times we stand on the shoulders of others? Let us work together to build on the opportunity that has been given to us.

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