Friday, November 14, 2008

Where Does It Live?

Chris Lehmann had an interesting post on his blog Practical Theory this morning. I thought I'd share his post, and my comment.


Where Does It Live?

Educators write pretty mission statements. But the problem with so many educational mission statements is that they sound good but bear little resemblance to the real world. This is part of the reason why good ideas get reduced to being called "edu-babble" because the words get invoked but never put into practice, so they lose their meaning.

But ideas have meaning if we let them.

So I have an idea -- whenever we hear or read schools or districts or teachers or administrators make a claim that their school / district / PD session / whatever is about "21st Century Learning" or "Life-Long Learning" or "Project-Based Learning" or whatever claim we may see or read, our first question should be -- "Where Does it Live?"

Educational ideas only have lasting power if they exist within the systems and structures of institutions that claim them. Everything -- every system, every policy, every structure -- in schools represent a pedagogical choice, and we don't take advantage of that. The classes we choose to schedule, the length of the classes, the times they meet -- every possible permutation privileges certain kinds of learning and makes other kinds of learning harder.

So, for example, at SLA, we say that the way we treat each other is based on the ethic of care -- the idea that caring relationships are at the heart of creating healthy learning environments. That idea has to live somewhere or eventually it will get squeezed out or only live within the people who came in already believing it. This is why we have Advisory -- a four year relationship between a group of twenty students and a teacher that ensures that every teacher has a group of kids for whom they are responsible and every students has an adult in the building who will always be their advocate. We had to plan for caring, we couldn't just assume it, and we certainly couldn't just say it.

All schools should be able to point to the places, the systems, the structures that prove that the words we say we believe truly live and are systemized in our schools. If we do this, those edu-bingo words will stop merely being buzzwords and, instead, will give us the rich language we need to teach and learn.

So what does your school claim to believe and where does it live?


Hi Chris,

That's a great question, one that I suspect most schools are wrestling with — or ought to be wrestling with — all the time. And I think you're right to place ideas in the context of structures, of environments. Right now my school is one year into a two-year self-study in preparation for the visit of the WASC accreditation team in March of 2010, and we're spending a lot of time trying to match up what it says in our mission with what we are doing.

The mission reads

We are committed to provide an environment where students can:

Develop moral and spiritual values consistent with the Christian principles on which the school was founded, affirming the worth and dignity of each individual

Develop intellectual, academic and physical potential to the fullest degree, preparing them for college and for challenges facing them now and in the future.

Develop and enhance creativity and appreciation for the arts.

Appreciate cultural diversity and develop social responsibility.

As we've been working on this, the word we seem to keep coming back to is in the first line: "environments." For most of my career I was an English teacher. And if you were to have asked me at any point, "Can you teach students how to write?" an honest answer would have been "no." I have no idea how to teach kids to write. But I have a lot of ideas which have proven to be pretty effective about how to create an environment in which kids can learn how to write.

Now there's a lot of talk all across the educational community about 21st Century skills. Tony Wagner's list, for one example, includes things like "agility and adaptability" and "initiative and entrepreneurialism." Can we teach agility? Can we teach initiative? I don't think so. Can we create environments in which students can be given the opportunity to be agile and to be entrepreneurial? Sure we can.

So I think that's how I'd answer your question. Where does it live? At my school, and perhaps in many other schools, it lives in the environments we create for students: the classrooms, the quad, the playing fields, the cafeteria, the auditorium, the chapel. It is — or ought to be — less about what we do and more about the kinds of choices we provide to our students, and the contexts in which those choices are made. And so, after much discussion, we have arrived at what I take to be our essential question for this self-study: "How do we create environments which promote flexibility, collaboration, and individual attentiveness." It's a question which cuts in two directions. It gets at what we want kids to do, and also at what we want teachers to do. And it pushes the responsibility for decisionmaking right down to the people in the room at the moment. That's what we're about, or what we're trying to be about. That's where it lives for us.

- Bruce

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