Post 4: The New Form, Imagined

Thursday, September, 6, 12 § 3 Comments

Last week we “went public” with School Re-formed when I invited a few dozen of my friends, family and colleagues to give us a click. The intention of sharing the site was not to tout our ideas to a large audience, but to invite some thoughtful people into the conversation on schools and learning that Christian Casillas, Zöe Nelsen, Greg Goles and I have been having for years.

We received some good feedback, and picked up a couple of guest bloggers for upcoming Thursday posts. But the most valuable response was from a former colleague, a practicing educator of great compassion and integrity whose short email raised a question I hadn’t considered in a long time: Do our schools really need to be “re-formed”?

In her email, the educator applauded our blog, but said she wasn’t sure she’d have much to contribute, as she wasn’t feeling all that “dissatisfied” with the way our schools are structured. At the public high school where she currently works, for example, she sees creative teachers and inspired students engaged in quality, classroom-based learning.

I’m thankful she wrote, because her point is very true: In spite of the “industrial” elements of school that are so troubling to me—the bell schedule, the rows of desks, the Carnegie unit curricula—the fact is, real teaching and learning is happening at her school, and at thousands of schools across the country. And given the trendiness of reform ideas—especially the results-crazed reforms being promoted today—many schools are probably well-advised to avoid making any major shifts, and stick with the devil they know.

Two books I’ve read recently, Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and Pasi Salhberg’s Finnish Lessons, make strong cases against a massive re-formation of the way we run our schools. Writing against reformers who would see the old chalkboard and apple neighborhood school replaced by innovative, private-sector style learning centers, stocked with technological gadgets and run by ambitious (if untrained) teachers, these authors argue that what our schools need is improvement, not overhaul.

Finland’s the shining example. Based on what I’ve read, and the short news reports (like this one) I’ve watched on Youtube, Finnish students still spend the majority of their days in classrooms, working through a predetermined curriculum laid out by their teachers. But through three decades of slow, systemic improvements, like professionalizing teaching and expanding (and destigmatizing) special education, the country’s created an equitable, low-stress, high-performing school system that’s the envy of the world.

In short, Finland has mastered school as we know it. And if the choice is between following the Finns (where students learn tons despite taking almost no standardized tests) or following corporate-minded reformers like Chester E. Finn (whose proposals include paying teachers based on how well their students test), I’ll go with the former.

But I believe there’s another option.

A decade of teaching students of all ages in all types of settings has left me convinced that classroom-based schooling runs counter to the way people learn.

That’s not to say people can’t learn in classrooms. They do, especially when supported, as in my colleague’s school or in Finland, by a collaborative corps of dedicated and well-educated teachers.

But people learn anywhere you put them. And there’s no good reason—save inertia—that the great majority of a child’s formalized learning time should be spent in an isolated school building.

The idea of a school being integrated into the larger community is not new. John Dewey explored it over a century ago, when he wrote about “the great waste” that happens in schools because of the disconnect between what a child does in the classroom and what she experiences outside. But though Dewey and his Chicago Lab School are studied by every education student in the country, schools still stand apart from the communities they are supposed to serve, and teachers and curriculum experts still struggle to help children understand the “real world” relevance of what they are supposed to be learning.

This isolation of our schools is what I believe we need to question and ultimately “re-form.”

The Big Picture design I wrote about in my last post, and which is profiled on this blog, offers a compelling alternative. In those schools, students spend two days a week learning out in the real world, in internships and mentorships at art studios, lawyer offices, nursing homes, restaurants, etc. In Northern Italy, the Reggio Emilia preschools have invented brilliant ways to have children normally relegated to sandboxes and playpens interact with people, businesses and institutions throughout the city. And Swaraj University in India, which we hope Christian will be visiting soon, literally uses the entire city of Udaipar—and beyond—as its “curriculum.”

When I dream about the school I hope to someday “re-form,” I don’t think about a well-organized canon of knowledge that everyone must be exposed to. I don’t see teachers struggling to make information relevant, or students struggling to pay attention.

Instead, I imagine a school as broad and diverse as the community around it, where “going to school” means a hundred different destinations for a hundred different students, where anyone and everyone can be a teacher. I do imagine a building, with some workshop spaces and performance areas and media centers, a sort of home base where students and advisors regularly come together to make meaning of what they have experienced, and share and discuss and celebrate what they have learned. And as Christian correctly described in his last post, I imagine a school that takes the lead, through reflection and critical thinking, in the creation of a more sustainable way of living.

Is such a form possible? Could a public school district team up with City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, non-profit organizations, the National Forest Service, and local artists, businesspeople and engaged citizens to “re-form” a school that happens outside of school? Could they do it for 20 students? 200? 2000?

Based on the hundreds of students I’ve had the honor of working with over the last ten years, I have no question that young people would embrace such a new form, and flourish within it. The trick—as always—is convincing the adults.

Seth Biderman | September 5, 2012



§ 3 Responses to Post 4: The New Form, Imagined

  • Ellen Biderman says:

    I think what people need to realize is that children and adults are always learning. The question is what are they learning and how to assure the learning helps them live a successful life. Schools are Only one learning environment. We need other places, businesses, gyms parks etc to all see themselves as learning places. Then some of the pressure might be off the schools. I am not sure your comment about Reggio is totally accurate. Ellen, the mom

  • Anne Salzmann says:

    I totally agree with the value of a school that can meet the needs of a diverse group of students – those who need to be hands on, those who need to learn some discipline and sit still etc. etc. My school provides within a fairly traditional format, freedom (within a college type schedule) to be responsible and come and go, the opportunity to take college classes as well as high school classes and a culture that revolves around love and respect for each person. To me, that last quality is what is missing in most schools that are too large, too impersonal, and that have staff who are tired and dissatisfied.

    Every day I see the results of students feeling loved (and held to high standards) – with kids who hate their parents and thus the world, who are illegal and feeling pushed out of their own country, and who are struggling with substance abuse as self-medication. When they realize that we will not ignore bad behavior but will talk to them and offer support and encouragement and treat them with respect, the changes can be life-changing (and parents have used that very term).

    Yes we need a wider choice of schools for students to consider, but most of all, our society must stop dehumanizing our schools, treating students as units and disrespecting teachers to the point that they have nothing left to give. As a society, those of us who are older have to understand that growing up now is a far more treacherous and difficult undertaking than we ever experienced, and family dysfunction is more pervasive and devastating than ever. That is the change needed and the one that we are trying to be.

    • Thanks for the beautiful reply, Anne. Your comment about “disrespecting teachers to the point that they have nothing left to give” rings particularly resonant today, as 26,000 teachers go on their second day of strike in Chicago. According the NYT report, one of the major issues the teachers are citing, again and again, is “a sense of disrespect.” (Which Romney is explicitly reinforcing, by casting the strike as a union power play; and which Obama is implicitly reinforcing, by remaining silent. Is there any national level politician willing to step up and show a little appreciation for teachers?)

      In Sahlberg’s book on Finland, he notes often that teaching is not the highest paid profession in Finland, but it is among its most desired because of the high amount of autonomy and professionalism teachers are afforded. Neither professionalism or autonomy play any part in the corporate model reforms that are so popular right now. The Chicago strike, I believe, is the culmination of years of frustration that began with the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind in 2002, but it also may be the beginning of a countermovement towards schools that develop the culture Anne speaks, cultures that revolve around love and respect.


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