“Wow! Sounds like School has changed!”
Yes, Sally. School has changed. But not nearly enough.
A week ago I hobbled into Sally’s physiotherapy clinic after I slipped disc lifting a screaming sandbag (AKA my almost two-year-old son) which resulted in four days of bed rest. During treatment, Sally asked about my class and was surprised to hear how different our student-centred classroom was compared to her own school experience.
Sally’s response is a familiar one. Friends, and even other teachers, often struggle to visualise how a class could possibly work with students assuming greater responsibility and ownership of their learning. The idea is so far removed from their perception of what school should be, that they are rightfully sceptical, but usually intrigued to learn more.
During my prescribed rest, I read the inspiring What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith, and it has me pretty excited. After the success of his previous book, Most Likely To Succeed, Dintersmith farewelled his family for the best part of a year (I had no idea this was an option!) to travel across the US seeking out the stories of innovative schools and teachers.
What the book does powerfully is normalising the innovative practices progressive educators have adopted in pockets all around the globe. He draws attention to those who have significantly impacted the lives of learners by turning their backs on the pressures standardised testing and the lock-step factory model of traditional schools.
Dintersmith visited hundreds of schools and met with thousands of students, parents and educators during the writing of his book. While success at each of these schools was highly contextual, he summarised the similarities he saw with the acronym PEAK:
Purpose: Students attack challenges they know to be important, that make the world better.
Essentials: Students acquire the skill sets and mindsets needed in an increasingly innovative world.
Agency: Students own their learning, becoming self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults.
Knowledge: What students learn is deep and retained, enabling them to create, make, to teach others.
These PEAK principals abound in preschools, kindergartens, and Montessori schools — places where children love school, learn deeply and joyously, and master essential skills.
This all comes from the prologue of the book before a single story has been told. Chris McNutt, of the Human Restoration Project, has written a detailed review of the bookwhich I highly recommend. There is also a podcastfeaturing Ted Dintersmith which is a great listen.
Chris is also responsible for one of my other favourite recent blog posts. For those looking to innovate, he suggests educators teach to get fired.
Do exactly what progressive education is: ditch grading, go all out for your students, build passionate projects, disobey standards, reorganize for student voice and choice — every single facet that you know that’s the best (and in the meantime, you may want to line up your options for better places to teach — they do exist.) It’s a risk, but all great changes require it. Personally, I’d rather know that I’ll be happy in my lifetime with my achievements, self-respect, and mission than have employment.
People may not know this about me, but I’ve been sacked every December for the past dozen years! I’m a contract teacher, so the chance of being permanently jettisoned from my school is ever-present. Even though I’ve only really worked at two schools in that time, I never know if I’m in my final year. But perhaps this is my innovation strength. I’m not worried about making mistakes, looking stupid, or getting fired because I already have been.
Over the course of my teaching career, my contract mindset has swung from “gosh, I really need to put in the hard yards and impress everyone this year” to “screw it, I’m getting fired anyway. Let’s push the boundaries and see how much impact we can have!” I find working without a safety net liberating. I enter each year knowing I’m operating on borrowed time, so my only concern is doing as much good as I possibly can in the 200 days I have.
Teaching to get fired is easier said than done (surely an oxymoron!) Educators often hold tight the idea of what school is, rather than what it could be. But if you had the power to re-imagine school, what would you do?
I recently read an article from Margie Sanderson about a democratic free school she worked at in Philidelphia where students and staff voted to re-elect faculty at the end of each school year. Can you imagine? Wouldn’t that throw a cat amongst the pigeons!
What if you got to vote your teachers in or out, each year? You had the power to oust that teacher who was clearly phoning it in, or reward the one who truly inspired you?
All staff are elected democratically, every year. Every School Meeting member (all current students and staff) get to vote “yes” or “no” for each staff candidate, via secret ballot. Candidates need a simple majority (more than 50%) of “yes” votes, of votes cast, to qualify for a position.
I wonder how this model would impact relationships, equity, or the use of positional authority in schools? Classroom Survivor! Sorry, Mr M, but the tribe has spoken. It’s time for you to go…
But I digress.
I’ve spent a significant amount of unlearning over the past 18 months, something my friend Mark Sonnemann describes as brain-Jenga because it forces you to reconsider everything you hold to be true. I think the majority of unlearning we have done has been positive, but perhaps the best people to ask about this are my students. Maybe I will.
I’m seriously excited to begin exploring the possibilities for my final semester with this incredible group of young people who have given so much of themselves and taught me so much. Time is precious. I hope to spend it wisely.
Even though we’ve pushed pretty far outside the norm for a mainstream primary class, we aren’t done yet. We haven’t arrived. We’re just getting started.
Back to Sally, as I was about to leave the physio clinic, she suggested that “My husband would do terribly in that environment, he’s a perfectionist who never finishes anything.”
Perhaps this is true. But what if having opportunities to decide when work was “done, not finished” gave Sally’s better-half the chance to explore strategies to counter this in his formative years? I wonder what learning in a PEAK principal classroom would’ve done for him. What might it have done for me? Most importantly, I wonder what it might do for the kids in my class who are currently living it? The clock is ticking, but one thing is for sure, we’re gonna find out.
I leave you with my favourite portion of Ted Dintersmith’s “What School Could Be”:
We’re at an inflection point. People are connecting dots. They’re starting to see that we need to do better things in our schools, for our children. They’re sensing the unbounded possibilities if we turn our students loose on problems they care about. They’re ready to trust our teachers to engage and inspire our students. And as I learned emphatically on this trip, once someone sees what a school could be, there’s no turning back.