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The Four Things You Need to Create a Good School

It's a scenario that's been posited before, many times: If you could start over--no residual assumptions--and build an ideal school from the ground up, what would you keep? What would you discard?

My friend Sam Chaltain asked these questions recently, in his excellent blog and on Twitter. It's good to know people like Sam, who haven't been mired in contentious K-12 World for decades, as part of their gainful employment. (Like me.) Sam knows lots about education, schools and the political economy that drives them in America--he's been a teacher, an organizer, and head of an education nonprofit, among other things--but he's also a dreamer.

Perhaps "visionary" would be a kinder, nobler label--but for most classroom practitioners, a full toolbag of strategies and activities to use, tomorrow, in the bricks-and-mortar building where their coffee cup resides, is worth far more than a creative vision. Most classroom teachers begin their career imagining all the children they will inspire, the essential skills they will nurture, the innovative thinking they will use to craft curriculum.  After a few years, a good percentage are merely hoping to get through the day without combat. There's not a lot of time for re-imagining.

Sam asks about familiar technologies and structures: Grades (both definitions--and isn't it interesting that we use the same word for age-based grouping and evaluative marks?), class-periods and schedules, desks and hall passes, yada yada. Keep or toss? Although he avoids using one of my least-favorite clichés--"factory model schooling"--it's clear that school as collection of predictable clip-art symbols (apples, chalkboards, bells) has got to go. Let the visioning begin!

Well. American schools have tried, sometimes vigorously, to shake the charge that they look the same as schools did a century ago.  They do make changes--as sweeping as the institution of special education, as minor as moving to block scheduling, gifted clustering, later starts for sleep-deprived high school students--and then, when those turn out to be problematic in the complex, interconnected world of K-12 education, they reverse course or tinker, tinker, tinker.

The irony is: a lot of what is seen as fresh and "choice-worthy" (special-focus charter schools, uniforms as social levelers, computer-delivered assessments that adapt to students' achievement levels, one-to-one iPad instruction, packaged curricula like Core Knowledge) locks us further into homogenous, system-preserving practice.

All of this to say: Sometimes, school practices evolved for better reasons than mere efficiency in moving large numbers of students through a public system.  Most school structures are less relevant than you might think--there are good and lousy schools with block scheduling, extended days, a STEM focus, etc. There are no silver bullets, but there are no fatal-flaw structures or technologies, either. When you come down to it, schools are mostly about getting the right people together.

So here are four things that I believe are essential in creating--or re-imagining--a good school. Things to keep, where they exist.

1. Learning in groups, establishing an interpersonal interface. It bears repetition: learning is a social act. Ask anyone who ever went to school about their strongest learning memories and most useful knowledge acquisition and they'll all be tied to human interaction--the incredible teacher, the drama production, analyzing pond water in their earth science class. Reported successes of homeschooled students are directly correlated with the fact that they know the person guiding their learning loves them and cares deeply about their education.

The most fallacious representation of good schooling in modern memory is the little cartoon conveyor belt in "Waiting for Superman," where content is deposited into students' flip-top heads. It doesn't work that way. And sitting a child in front of a screen, where content is "presented" and then "assessed" is a recipe for decontextualized, temporary memorization. Which is different from useful learning.

2. Commitment to a democratic classroom. The first and most important thing students learn in a good school is how to be a citizen.  How to wait their turn, share resources, listen to speakers, ask and answer questions, and not stick pencils in the drinking fountain. How to be part of a functioning, civilized community--a place where people get along.

If you think these things are optional, or less significant than, say, multiplication tables, you're wrong. Treating every child as a respected member of a learning organization is a path toward adult self-sufficiency. An autocratic model where children are rewarded only for compliant behavior and hoop-jumping, leads to a lifetime of trying not to get caught.

3. Ideas and investigations and arts. What to learn? History tells us that the discrete skills and knowledge selected for a particular group of learners is not as critical as you might think. The current argument over cursive writing is an example of this--will life go on if students skip over the Palmer method and learn keyboarding instead? Certainly. But what will be lost? The educational past is littered with subjects once thought fundamental, now forgotten or marginalized: Logic. Rhetoric. Latin and Greek. Wood shop. Etc.

Students do need to wrestle with big ideas, in group discussion and in their own writing. They need to investigate, experiment, hypothesize and test, learn from ancient texts and cutting-edge media. They need to make original things--songs, sculptures, devices, graphic representations of data. 

This is not an assertion that students should "control their own learning." Children need instruction and guidance, and wise teachers who can develop a comprehensive banquet of learning options. There is no one best curriculum, however--no set of topics and competencies that serves all children perfectly.

4. Diversity and controversy. It's a big wide world, with lots of stuff to learn and beliefs to evaluate.  Putting a wall around things that are provocative, debatable and even flat-out wrong, or keeping students ignorant of people and cultures with divergent beliefs, is dangerous.  It's too late to challenge your convictions and broaden your horizons when you get to the university.  A school where children are taught to think alike, act alike and believe the same things is a school that shortchanges the educational process.

Coda: Here's the least essential thing in re-imagining school: standardization.

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