Monthly Archives: October 2013

schools should be so much more

Schools are for so much more than academics.

This past weekend, I had the chance to leave the city and get some fresh air and see three schools in Vermont while visiting friends and their new baby. Hooray for long weekends!

Though one of the school visits was really just to take in a Renaissance fair that was being held on that campus and another was to take in a harvest festival — and, frankly, when you’re in Vermont in mid-October, that’s what you do — I got the chance to spend a lot of time on the campus of the third. What struck me is how much more there is to a school than the teaching and learning. And I don’t mean that in a “hey, there’s community service, too!” or “we have an advisory program!” kind of way, but more in a “there’s so much about living that students need to learn” kind of way.

From signs that question ignorance to seeing cows in a campus barn that sees shifts of student workers; big school festivals had have a gigantic sense of community that went beyond any one school and its teachers, students, and parents; places to have fun and rest and be in nature; to tables and chairs that so seamlessly use the natural resources around them, everything that I saw had so much to do with non-academic teaching and learning. And because I wasn’t used to any of it, I feel like I learned so much in three days about how where we are can dramatically affect who we are and what/how we learn.

So we already know that schools need to be places of as much social and emotional learning as academic learning, but there has to be more to it than that. How do we teach kids about who, how, and what to be? (And, perhaps more personally relevant, how do you do that in the confines of a small school building… you know, one that doesn’t have a barn or a lake?)

building better wagons

2E6672CD-BE92-4F42-BE13-E3F32830AD90I’m obsessed with printing Klein bottles, “a surface in which notions of right and left cannot be consistently defined.” I suppose that I like them for how weird they are, how there isn’t supposed to be a beginning or end, and, really, how cool they look. While my prints of these bottles are mostly relegated to designs that I’ve found online, the design and fabrication of such a shape seems ripe for some interdisciplinary work at the intersection of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

STE(A)M is another one of those educational “innovations” that I wrote about yesterday, though I don’t like talking about it as an innovation when working within and between these subject areas should be the norm rather than something special. I get that the acronym has a big fan, but the problem with STE(A)M is that it puts a focus on certain subject areas and ignores others. Why aren’t we paying similar attention to how English and history studies could and should be paired so that they spiral together? Or what about the interplay between English and technology, or physical education and math, or heck, just about any other combination of subjects?

At school, we’re working on crafting a statement that explains the work that we’re doing with STE(A)M, and I keep getting hung up on the lack of truly transdisciplinary focus that includes all subject areas. As my friend and colleague, Chris Beddows, wrote on his great new IB Primary Years Program-focused blog:

Now we are not saying we are becoming a ‘STEAM School’  – we are, and continue to be, committed to the standards and mission of the IB. We are proud to be an IB world school. However, STEAM is an approach to teaching and learning that will truly enhance our program of inquiry. It is also a way that we can continue to strengthen and develop our links throughout all three programs we offer at school. These links are clear to see. You just have to look at the program models from the IB. Within each there are the phrases ‘approaches to teaching’ and ‘approaches to learning’.

Each one of the IB program models emphasizes a well-rounded education and, as Chris mentioned, separate but related foci on approaches to teaching and approaches to learning. What I think we’re finding is that STE(A)M is a great way to frame our first concerted effort at interdisciplinary work (though our lower school, and I suspect many lower schools, have been doing such work for a long time), but there’s a lot more to truly great teaching and learning than the acronym. Interdisciplinary work that scaffolds through all our grades, that broadens in scope and breadth, and that informs — but doesn’t constrain — what we do in our classrooms is becoming the new hallmark that we are striving towards.

Who doesn’t love a good acronym? But teaching and learning shouldn’t be constrained by the letters that we choose to use in an easy to remember word, just as it shouldn’t hitch its wagon to every cool-sounding “innovative” educational movement.

Why do we need to hitch our wagons to movements?


(I don’t know where this graphic originally came from, but thanks for sharing it, Karen Blumberg.)

A couple of years ago, social media was supposed to be the thing that unlocked so much potential in education. We can communicate with each other online! Revolutionary! No it wasn’t, no it isn’t. It’s the way people go about their every day anyway.

Then the maker movement came with its emphasis on creation, which was supposed to unlock the practical, engaging, and innovative. This works, and it’s great, but it’s also almost exactly how kids play anyway when given the chance.

Design thinking is all the rage now, and we’ve taken a meta view to creation, focusing on the process of creation and making it ok to fail safe in our classrooms. It’s a great thing and all, but I think the empathetic element of DT is actually something that’s been missing from most education for a while. This feels a lot more like we’ve restored some balance in our classrooms more than anything else.

So… what’s going to be next? And how revolutionary will it really be?

Each of these three things — maybe a snapshot of some educational trends from the last five years or so — is nothing new or revolutionary. What they do more than anything else is move classrooms from a one-and-done model of assessment and proof of knowledge (“Oh, you got an 55 on your math test? Then you know 55% of math.”) and make them more in line with how the rest of the world works — more than one chance to do something, often with a chance to have a little fun while you’re doing it.

The true innovation in these three examples was the reintroduction of real-world relevance and immediate engagement into classrooms that needed it. A student should never have to ask “Why am I learning this?” or “What does this have to do with what I’m learning in that other class?” If we’re not making that clear, then we’re doing our students a disservice, just as we’re doing them a disservice by asking them to operate, between the hours of 8 and 3 on weekdays, in a way that is fundamentally different from the way that they would ordinarily get things done. We should be making our guiding questions, significant concepts, or whatever else you want to call them make sense for our students, and making sure that they can see how the things that they learn in one classroom connect to another.

So students should know that social media today is not only a great way to communicate — both personally and with the rest of the world — but that it’s also the modern day equivalent of American Revolution-era pamphleteering. They should know that people have been making things using trial and error and iteration, and also trying to design better solutions to real problems for a long time. And they should know that empathy isn’t a new thing, and in fact is something that should never have been out of any discussions.

A very wise and now-retired colleague once told me, as we were making a push for rapidly increased technology integration, “Young teachers won’t have an easier time using technology in their classrooms. Good teachers will.” So let’s all be good teachers who know what will work and how to use it. Whatever comes next, let’s just figure out how to let common sense guide us past the restrictions of practicality. I bet we’ll have more fun with it, have an easier time trying, failing, and improving with it, making better teaching and learning experiences for everyone involved.