School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools Need Design Teams

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 20, 2015 5 min read
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Is change really essential inside the school walls? If we were to stop and consider what schools were like when each of us attended them, truly, for a reflective moment, what would we describe? In elementary classrooms, desks or tables, a teacher’s desk, depending upon our age perhaps a few computers on the side of the room, a communication device on the wall, perhaps a blackboard, a whiteboard, or a interactive white board, books on shelves, work and lesson reminders on the wall, a bulletin board seasonally decorated. In secondary classrooms, desks, most likely in rows, a teacher’s desk, again depending upon our age perhaps a few computers on the side of the room, a communication device on the wall, perhaps a blackboard, a whiteboard, or a interactive white board, maybe texts on shelves and less work and lesson reminders on the walls but still probably a bulletin board. How similar is that to what we see in today’s classrooms?

What about the schedule? In the elementary classrooms maybe a circle time to begin the day, time for language arts, reading, and math every day and science and social studies less frequently; maybe library, music, art once a week and physical education twice a week. Time for play practice or a science fair, seeing a play or taking a field trip during the year can break the schedule. On the secondary level, periods of the day are arranged to fulfill academic expectations in science, math, English language arts, social studies, physical education and electives like art, music, maybe computers, and technology (sometimes replacing the old shop class). How similar is that to what we see in today’s classrooms?

...and Today
Now what if we hold those visions in our mind and compare them to what we see today? Likely the major differences will be related to the technology. Either it wasn’t present in our past and now is or it was present in our past but its presence is more pervasive. What has also changed are some methods and manner of teaching in classrooms across the country. But, what teachers may be prepared to do intersect with school buildings and structures and find limitations.

There are schools in which teachers have been trained in methods that challenge even the architecture of schools. Classrooms designs often can’t accommodate the flexibility required for students to work together in groups, learning and making meaning together, researching alone, writing alone, come back as a group to present what their have learned and discovered.

One such framework followed is the Buck Institute’s Project Based Learning. There are schools in which shop class has become an extended program created by Project Lead The Way. Others have created elective courses called MST (math, science, technology) in which students use all three subjects together to learn and create. Others have been extremely successful in creating school-business partnerships. These partners share expertise and ideas that inform real life ideas for the application of subjects for teachers. Partners work alongside teachers helping to create learning opportunities that reflect the real-world application of the concepts and skills that are the learning objectives in the course.

The world in which news was delivered in newspapers, and once a day on the television isn’t even the world in which the current school design was developed. In those days, there were daily newspapers, and if you went to the movies, there was a newsreel delivering the news that was essentially dated. There were no social media outlets other than the conversations that may have taken place at the grocery or the gas stations. There were fewer competing views. Wars were won or lost and didn’t last for decades. Innovation was left to and expected from the elite few. Manufacturing, and perhaps sales were the workforce outside of the declining farming industry. Not only is it different today, but it is changing so quickly, we can hardly be secure in our advice about what is important for students to know and be able to do beyond the capacity to research, work well with others, make objective decisions, be well prepared to manage change, to think with an innovative eye, and to work well with others. What was memorized as facts about Mars and Pluto are now changing as we write.

A Call To Leaders And Teachers
School leaders in this century have the enormous task of turning a ship in turbulent waters. The organization of schools must be in sync with the world in which they are situated, and the one into which students will graduate and become a work force. The design, the mental picture of a system that can do that is already in the minds of some, beyond the imagination of others, and not even in the thoughts of others.

What we truly need is support for the creativity, time and resources to design and pilot local options that fulfill the standards and expectations on a state and federal level and allow for localization and partnerships and vision as well. For example, in New York State, there are the age-old regents exams that are the required exit tickets for graduation. They are subject based. In a school that has the capacity to choose to blend history and art, or science and math, or math and banking, or music and art and English, measuring the alignment with the subject-based curriculum standards, in order to be able to confidently offer the blended courses as alternatives is a huge undertaking. The subject based assessments call for subject-based classes, not what today’s classrooms truly need. On the same hand, we need to be sure that students know and are able to use information we teach in meaningful and correct ways. If we are truly dedicated to the rebirth of a leading edge educational system for this century, something must be done.

Advocacy for new school designs must organize. Educators have to become change initiators or it will continue to be forced upon us. When speaking to legislators and those with the resources to influence education, the message must be that raising standards must be accompanied with new designs and delivery options. Latitude must be given, if even only to a select group of districts or states, in order to design, pilot, and assess the value of the changes. If people like Laurene Powell Jobs, or Bill and Melinda Gates want to dedicate millions of dollars to improving schools, let the money be spent in this way. Let their conviction and generosity include what educators know, and that is, the design and demands of today’s schools prevent true innovation as long as the structure remains. There are many who have tinkered within the system and have seen extraordinary results with unlikely students becoming engaged, attendance rates rising, and overall student achievement rising as well. This century not only needs graduates who “know what”, it needs graduates who are interested, motivated, engaged, and “know how.” That starts in our classrooms. Let’s gather around these ideas and call out for funding design space and design teams. Other entrepreneurial organizations have them in their budgets...schools need them too.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.