Chapter One: RETHINK SCHOOL

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Chapter 1 

RETHINK SCHOOL

If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.

                                                                                                                   John Dewey

 

At every crossway on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.”

Maruice Meterlinck

Belgian Nobel Laureate in Literature

 

In 1975 I had been in school, either as a student or as a teacher, for almost 25 years.  Since I was not quite 30 years old – “school” had been my whole life.  I actually taught in the same school that my brother had attended in the 1950’s.  Very little had really changed.

 

So, when I walked into the Arcadia Montessori School because I needed daycare for my 3-year-old son, I had difficulty understanding what I was looking at.  Walking through the front door there was an office on the left and a long hall on the right.  The hall was lined with what looked like windows into what did not look like a classroom.  Through the one-way glass, I could see children everywhere … doing all sort of different things … and being very quiet and well-behaved.  The few adults I could find didn’t seem to be teaching at all.  Rather they were walking around, chatting with a child for a few moments, and then moving on.

 

I had a decision to make that day.  School was starting in a few weeks and I needed to find daycare!  Paul had spent most of his first three years with a wonderful family who, much to my chagrin, had decided to move to Oregon.  Arcadia Montessori was just up the street from where I taught.  I knew that they took children as soon as they were potty-trained, so my husband and I decided to give it a try.

 

From that day on I realized that what I had always assumed that school should be like, isn’t necessarily so.  In fact, as I look back almost 50 years, I see that public schools have spent far too much time, energy, and money trying to get children to fit into the same little boxes that may have worked for our parents and grandparents – but don’t seem to be working so well for our children.[1]

 

BEYOND THE COMMITTEE OF TEN

 

By the dawn of the new century the Industrial Revolution was well under way and the system the Committee of Ten had implemented was set in cement.[2]    Although communications may have been lacking by today’s standards, universities across the country were well aligned and everyone knew what formal education was all about.

Isn’t that an interesting term?  “Formal Education.”

Sit back and say that to yourself a few times.

If “formal” education is one thing … then is “informal education” something else?

 

What was it that I saw at Arcadia Montessori School that day?  The only answer that comes to mind is that I was seeing children – and adults – learning.

 

It occurs to me that once the Committee of Ten had formalized “higher education” for the elite few, the rest of the population was moving on to learn lessons that served them well for the rest of their lives.  My grandfather John Alfred “Benny” Benson is a case in point.

At the age of 11, he was sent to work on a stranger’s farm in the next county when his mother died.  His father, Otto Benson, an Iowa farmer and Swedish immigrant, had to find other people to raise his children. Grandpa B. never finished the 6th grade, but when he died, he left his family enough stock in the Ford Motor Company to put his grandchildren through college.

My father did finish high school, but he dropped out of Pasadena City College to join the Navy just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Even though he lived with a chronic, disabling form of arthritis, he was able to leverage his investment in a small 2-bedroom house purchased through the GI Bill into a 9-unit apartment building that now pays my 100-year-old mother’s rent in a lovely retirement community in Brookings, Oregon.

Both school dropouts.  Both lived financially comfortable lives.

So what happened?

 

WORLD WAR II and the “BABY BOOM”

Many Baby Boomers will remember the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy and Ethel get jobs on a candy factory assembly line.  If you are too young for that, or if you just want to take a hilarious stroll down Memory Lane, type this URL into your search engine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmAwcMNxGqM.  (It’s much easier to simply google “lucy ethel chocolate factory.”)  Take the time to watch the 3:04 version and think about the role of the “supervisor” as you watch Lucy and Ethel try to keep up.

 

Before the 1940’s, little kids came to public school much like the first chocolates on the conveyor belt in that episode.  The focus was on the “Three R’s: “Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic (… “taught to the tune of a hickory stick” – as I remember my mother singing ad nauseum 😉!)

 

From December 7, 1941 until September 2, 1945 America was at war.  Young men left their families, and young women moved to the cities to help the war effort. Teachers and students dropped out to join the armed forces. Construction of new schools stopped, and teaching materials were in short supply.  The country was focused on the war, and little thought was given to what would happen when the war ended.

 

The joy the country felt at the end of the war was, sadly, tempered by the devastating losses felt by almost every family in the country.  My own father was one of 8 children, 6 girls and 2 boys.  Only one of those boys came home.  To make a devastating situation worse, my Uncle Earl served as a Marine pilot and was never seen after his buddies saw his Corsair disappear into a cloud over the Soloman Islands in the South Pacific.

 

Then I came along.  Since my father did not go overseas, he and my mother were married on December 11, 1944.  I was born in April 1946 and brought joy back to a family in grief.

 

I, of course, was not the only one!   Marriages that had been postponed during the war years led to babies being born in the halls of crowded hospitals in 1946 and ’47.  So, in September 1951 public schools were simply not ready.  I’m not sure when my generation were first called “Boomers” … but I’m sure that’s how a lot of teachers felt about us in the early 1950.  And, like the chocolates on Lucy’s conveyer belt. . . we kept coming and coming.   I have heard that some first-grade classes tripled in size from one year to the next!

 

THE FACTORY MODEL

I was eleven years old on October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union put Sputnik I into orbit around the earth.  Even before 1957 I can remember crouching in school hallways or under my desk, told to keep my eyes closed tightly so I wouldn’t be blinded by the flash of an H-bomb. Those “drop and cover” drills had scared me enough, but now I had to worry about that little beach-ball sized satellite passing over our house every night?

Turns out that the whole country was afraid.  The Space Race was on, and in order to win, our schools would have to start turning out kids that were smarter than kids behind the Iron Curtain.”[3]  As a result, the standardization that began with the Committee of Ten in 1892 moved into high gear.  Whether or not kids actually got smarter, test scores did improve, for awhile.[4]  We won the first leg of the Space Race when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20,1969.[5]

Although I doubt that very many educators would have admitted it in those days, schools resembled factories in many ways.[6]  The end-product was a high school diploma.  Progress along the way was measured by test scores.  If the analogy of Lucy’s chocolate factory still works, the conveyer belt consisted of school subjects and departmentalized classes, and time was measured by quarters, semesters, and bell schedules. Quality was assessed in Carnegie Units and letter grades.

Students who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – conform to this system left early.  They still believed that, like their parents and grandparents, they could succeed in life without this “formal education.” The world, however, had changed and would continue changing.

 

CIVIL RIGHTS AND THE HOSPITAL (Deficit) MODEL

Before 1960 minorities were still minorities and they had no voice in public policy making.  But then, Baby Boomers began to ask questions.  The war in Southeast Asia was heating up and discontent was felt in all sectors of society.  While we usually think of the Civil Rights movement in terms of racial equality, many educators were asking questions about the kids who, like the candy on the conveyor belt, kept “flipping off the assembly line.”  In many cases children with disabilities were excluded from public education entirely, and in others, public education was failing to recognize, or even look for, the reasons why children weren’t able to keep up.

As a result of the work of advocates for these children, on November 29, 1975 the Federal Government passed a law that again changed the face of American education forever.   Public Law 94-142 states that “Every child has a right to a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment.”[7]   While the exact wording of that law might not be familiar to the teachers and parents of today, it continues to impact their lives on a daily basis.

A favorite professor of mine introduced PL 94-142 with the following quote: “Every good idea starts with a poet – and ends with a policeman.”[8]  The intent of the law is poetic.  Every child certainly deserves an opportunity to reach his or her potential, regardless of ability – or disability.  The reality, however, was that an already overloaded system became even more stressed. The “least restrictive environment” had to be determined, and many times created.  Children had to be tested, sorted into categories, and assigned labels.  Teachers had to be trained in order to provide the “appropriate” educational program.

Class sizes continued to increase during the 1970’s as Baby Boomers were sending their own children to school.  “Mainstreaming,” “Special Ed,” and “Individual Education Plans” (IEP’s), became part of school vernacular and, unfortunately, at times a teacher could feel a bit like a triage nurse.  Administrative paperwork took up more and more of a teacher’s time … and “burn-out” was another word that was heard all too often in the teachers’ room.

 

I was teaching five periods of English/Language arts to 8th graders in the mid 1980’s and loving every minute of it.  Two of my classes were “Honors” – two were “Standard” and one was “Fundamental.”  I had a separate curriculum for each according to what was determined to be their abilities.  The Hospital Model was working well.  Our special education department was well-staffed and, from my point of view, every student was getting an appropriate education in the “lease restrictive environment.”  What that meant was that students who had been tested and deemed to have special needs were either in classes (or schools) taught by teachers specially trained in their area of disability, or were “mainstreamed” into the general population as their IEP indicated.  I occasionally had a “Resource” student leave one of my classes to get individual or small group help from a Special Ed teacher, but other than that I was on my own.

 

Much to my surprise, the class I enjoyed teaching the most in those days was my “Fundamental” class.  Class size was limited to 12 because it consisted of students who could not make it in the “mainstream” but did not demonstrated the “red flags” necessary to be evaluated by an SST (Student Study Team) that determined if an IEP was called for.  They were all boys.  What I loved most about that class was that they were honest.  That’s when I decided to go back to school and get a Masters’ Degree in Pupil Personnel Services (school counseling).

What disturbed me the most was that the main thing I saw in those boys was wasted potential.  They were well on their way to becoming dropouts, yet they were some of the brightest kids I’ve ever taught.  The problem was that they just didn’t fit.  I have come to see them as the “Square Pegs” that don’t, can’t, or won’t conform.  If the system has evolved into a perfectly “round hole,” I sometimes felt like we were trying to knock the corners off these kids to make them fit.   The real reason that I decided to become a counselor was because I wanted to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.  Although I had never heard of the “Factory” or “Hospital” models at that time, I realized that my “fundies” (as they were called by some of the “Round Peg” kids) needed something entirely different.  Maybe as a counselor I could figure out what that was. . . . .

I deleted the stuff called “Before and After the Decade of the Brain” out and will save it for later … maybe.  It talks about A Nation at Risk … and goes into OBE … no direction … my story.  Use somewhere else … maybe.

 

COMPUTERS IN EVERY CLASSROOM

Computer technology was something else that few teachers saw coming in the 1980’s.  I have to laugh at myself when I think about the single computer class that was required as part of my degree.  We had to sit at a keyboard and type impossible little symbols into the machine so that at the end of the exercise we could push a button and the computer would recreate a little picture we had drawn on a piece of graph paper.   I thought that learning a “computer language” was a colossal waste of my time.  Now I laugh at myself so I won’t cry!

 

Unlike my father, however, who always maintained that computers were just a passing fad, some teachers were well aware that computers were coming. Steve Jobs introduced his Apple IIe computer to schools in 1982 through a program called “Kids Can’t Wait,” and by the mid 1990’s computer labs were commonplace – soon to be followed by a computer on every teacher’s desk.

 

A computer arrived in my classroom in 1995 and, along with most of my friends, I struggled to keep up with my students’ understanding of how to use it.  By the time I left classroom teaching in 1998, most of the staff development dollars were being put into bringing teachers up to speed about how to integrate computers into their classrooms.  Very little was left over to introduce them to “The Brains Behind the Brain” – or to compare the natural system of the brain and how it learns with the logical, linear systems of technology.

 

The problem was, and still is, that the work of the Committee of Ten, almost 140 years old, is so deeply entrenched in education – now at a global level – that the transition to educational structures and practices that honor the natural way the human brain learns is proving to be uncomfortable, if not impossible for many educators.

 

A NEW MODEL FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM

Remember “Y2K”?

 

The memory of the fear that many felt as the year would no longer start with a “19” is fading fast and somehow, we all survived.  I’m not exactly too sure what the fuss was all about, but it had something to do with how computer systems would adjust to the shift from 19… to 20… .  I remember trying to compare it to when all the gasoline pumps had to be replaced because no one ever expected gas to cost more than $ .99! (If I haven’t given my age away before now, that certainly will!)

 

What I’m trying to say here is that at some point we need to let go of the fear that we all seem to have because the schools we send our children and grandchildren to don’t look very much like the ones we loved – or hated – as children.  A factory is a linear, mechanistic model; a hospital is a compartmental model, and neither one of them work when we talk about schools anymore.  Yet that’s exactly what we keep arguing about. The real problem is that the human brain is neither linear nor compartmentalized.

 

It wasn’t until my last year of classroom teaching that I learned about Eric Jensen and what he was calling “Brain Compatible Learning” (BCL).  I took a 6-day BCL workshop during the summer of 1998 and have forever since wished that I had taken it at the beginning of my teaching career! The following January I attended his Learning Brain Expo and attended a workshop led by Chris Phillips called “Environmental Design for a Brain Compatibility.”  She called her new model the “Garden Classroom.”  I’m having a great deal of trouble figuring out how to explain that model because, although it’s powerful in its simplicity, it has continued to unfold in complexity as I’ve thought about it for the past 20 years.

 

The interesting thing about most analogies is that at some point they break down.  If I were to say “A classroom is like a factory” almost anyone would immediately beg to disagree and begin to point out the flaws in my thinking.  Likewise, “A classroom is like a hospital” would trigger even stronger objections.     What’s been most interesting to me is that when I say “A classroom is like a garden” … the reaction is quite different.  “Hmmm … I never thought about it that way” is the most common.

 

THE GARDEN CLASSROOM:  A LIVING SYSTEMS MODEL

A garden is a living system.  I think that Frederick Frobel had it right in 1840 when he founded his own school in Blankenburg, Thurigia and called it a “Kindergarten,” or “children’s garden.   He called his hands-on approach to learning “self-activity” which “allowed the child to be led by his or her own interests.”[9]  The teacher’s role was to be a guide rather than lecturer.  The Idea was that every child is an individual.  One child is no more like the child sitting next to him than a rose is like a daisy – or perhaps a zucchini!

 

Unfortunately, with the advent of high-stakes testing even Kindergarten teachers don’t have time to get to know their children as individuals.  My granddaughter wasn’t quite old enough to enter Kindergarten last fall so instead of spending another year at home, she is now in Transitional Kindergarten which is designed to get children ready for the rigors of Kindergarten.  (Sigh.)

 

That’s why I want to sit back and wonder what it might be like if we could start from scratch. What if we could let go of the “one-size-fits-most” system currently in place and build on Frobel’s ideas.  What if there were a better way to teach the “3 ‘R’s”?

 

As with any metaphor, the idea of a classroom as a garden is simply a mental model.  It’s just another way of thinking about what goes on in a classroom. The difference between it and the other two models is that it’s a lot harder to explain.  A natural system can be thought of as anything from a rain forest and a desert.  While a garden is certainly a living system, you can’t really call it a natural system unless you want to turn it over to the weeds and hungry little critters!

 

(I need to decide between a living system and a natural system … or use both and explain them better.  See Fast Company magazine article?)

(I ALSO decide if I can explain this without reference to Chris and just put her in the footnote…)

 

Chris Phillips introduced two concepts into her workshop.  As it progressed she had us literally weave Howard Gardener’s eight Intelligences into aspects of a natural system. We constructed 3-dimensional structures using construction paper as she explained the basics of Natural Systems and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. (Specific instructions and definitions in Appendix A)

 

It didn’t take us very long to see that the descriptors of a natural system could also describe a classroom:

 

·         Diverse ·         Dynamic
·         Shared Resources ·         Unpredictable
·         Balanced ·         Unique
·         Interdependent ·         Continually changing

 

Neither did it take us very long to see that two other aspects of natural systems also apply.  They are messy and they tend to drift from order to chaos and back to order again without much warning.

Once our focus had shifted from thinking of a classroom as a factory or a hospital to a living system, Chris used Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences to illustrate the breadth of diversity among learners.  According to Gardner an intelligence is a “preference for processing information.”  He suggests that while everyone possesses all these capabilities, there is a spectrum involved.  Individual strengths and weaknesses span all eight.

A Summary Chart in Appendix C explains each one, but for now just notice that it’s only the first two, Verbal/Linguistic and Logical/Mathematical that we consider “important” in school.   Perhaps that’s why a classroom can sometimes resemble a jungle a lot more than a well-tended garden.

 

·         Verbal/Linguistic ·         Musical
·         Logical/Mathematical ·         Interpersonal
·         Spatial ·         Intrapersonal
·         Body Kinesthetic ·         Naturalist / Systemic

The backdrop for the entire exercise was the “brain friendly classroom” that I’ll talk more about in Chapters 2 and 3.   The human brain itself is a natural system, and in order to thrive it requires a healthy learning environment – in much the same way that a plant needs the elements of healthy soil, water, and sunshine.

 

I need to stop right now and ask the obvious question. Is this practical?  The work of the Committee of Ten is almost 140 years old and is deeply entrenched in education – now at a global level. The transition to educational structures and practices that honor the natural way the human brain learns would be uncomfortable, if not impossible for many educators.   What is not impossible, however, is that we just begin to ask questions.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these three models. What’s important is that we simply recognize each of them for what they are worth and make sure we’re intentional as we move forward.

 

BACK TO FIRST PRINCIPLES

Elon Musk never tackled the problem of American education, but if he had, he probably would have gone about it differently from how the reformers in the 1980’s approached the issue.[10]  They started with the system as it was and worked to improve upon all or part of it.  That’s analogy thinking and there’s really not anything wrong with it.  If you want to make improvements, that’s what you do.   But, like Dr. Spady pointed out, we were still just rearranging deck chairs.  To push the analogy even further, ever since that decade we’ve kept adding deck chairs to the point that it’s difficult to understand where the ship is supposed to be going.

There has been a somewhat recent shift in the terminology that is being used when discussing the changes that need to be made in education.  The Nation at Risk report in 1983 called for educational reform.[11]  The call now is for transformation. I’m not altogether sure what the powers-that-be mean when they use that word because it sounds a little like someone wants to sink the whole ship and start over.

And we all know that’s not going to happen.  Remember that Eric Jensen puts it this way.  “The brain likes to nibble; it does not like paradigm shifts.”    School subjects and departmentalized classes are not going to go away very soon.  Colleges are still going to require transcripts that can be understood in Carnegie Units and time spent in school will still be measured in minutes, hours, days, months, semesters, and years.  All of that said, however, we can all just step back and take a fresh look at where we are, how we got there, and where we want to go from here.

That’s where First Principle Thinking can come in.

I am having a bit of trouble trying to wrap my brain around what is going on in the world right now.  I just wrote that “the brain doesn’t like paradigm shifts” … and that is most definitely true.  But something happened just a few weeks ago that has forced the entire world into a paradigm shift of major proportions.

I’m writing this on the 13th day of what President Trump is calling “15 Days to Slow the Spread.”[12]  To me, and to much of the country, it doesn’t feel like I’ve slowed down … it feels like I’ve stopped.  Time just doesn’t mean the same thing as it did a month ago.

In the introduction to this book I asked you to stop, close your eyes and take a breath. It feels so strange that the we actually have an opportunity to do that right now. As I write, schools across the country have shut down and families are trying to adjust to a new way of living.  Schools will probably be open by the time anyone reads this, and they may or may not be transformed in any meaningful way.  But it is most definitely a good time to stop and think about First Principles.

You might want to stop reading right here and give that some thought.  There’s no right or wrong answer … it all depends upon your own perception and experience with school.  Your ideas might be very different from mine, but since I’m writing this book I have to start somewhere!

 

__________________________

When I tried to do this, my first thought was about how I felt every September for 30 years.  (Yes, school used to start in September!)  I loved to sit in that empty classroom, with the floor shining and all the furniture pushed to one side, planning and daydreaming about what the coming year would be like.

Over the course of 30 years I taught every grade from 4th to 8th including 6 years as an elementary music teacher with a room of my own.  Regardless of the age of the students, or my teaching assignment – the First Principles I came up with were the same:

 

COMMUNITY                         DIVERSITY                           DIRECTION

 

  • My hope was always that within a few weeks, I could somehow inspire a group of 30+ kids to care about each other and feel a genuine sense of community. (community is underlined in the PDF)

 

  • I knew for sure that each student would arrive with a unique set of needs, gifts, and idiosyncrasies! My job would be to not only accept – but celebrate diversity and inspire my students to do the same.

 

  • I will admit that I often felt like I was herding cats when trying to keep this motley crew headed in a common direction … but without a clear sense of purpose it was easy to lose sight of the reason I went into teaching in the first place: to learn and to help children love learning.

 

TRANSFORMING SCHOOL FROM THE INSIDE OUT

From now on I’m not going to be talking about reforming schools – or transforming the system.  Rather, I’m going to be coming from the perspective of an individual teacher meeting with the same students, in the same classroom every day for a whole school year.  That’s the most important, and I could argue that it’s the only place we can begin to start talking about transforming education.

In 1961 a meteorologist at MIT was working on a model to predict the weather.  He speculated that a butterfly flapping it wings in the Amazon could, hypothetically, set off a chain of events that could cause a tornado to touch down in Texas.[13] His theory has come to be known as the Butterfly Effect and, in a way, it could be applied to what might happen in a classroom when the teacher, or even one of the other children, makes even a slight change in their behavior, actions, or attitude.

Thinking about a classroom as a living system is nothing more than a mental model, but it is one that could radically change the way we look at education.    The idea each student as a seed, unlike any other, could serve as that simple shift of perception and/or attitude that could transform the experience of an entire class … or school … or eventually, perhaps, a whole district.    (or … the whole world?  That works better with the Butterfly Effect – but maybe sounds grandiose?)

[1] Spady. Ed. Week. The Paradigm Trap

[2] Ref

[3] As a little child I didn’t know what any of this really meant … probably much like kids today who wonder about things that they don’t even have words to ask about.

[4] Nation at Risk

[5] Nation at Risk paragraph 2

[6] A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) (Report). Washington, DC. 1983. (“The article emphasized among several points the observation that teachers are frequently regarded as identical units of a factory assembly line in the education sector.” Wikipedia)

[7] Ref

[8] Bruce Simmerok

[9] August, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.   (Google Frobel kindergarten – open Scholastic.com article)

[10] This may be a problem.  I took the material about the 1980’s out of this chapter thinking it might fit better in Chapter 4 – Rethink Writing.  Now I see that I’d like to refer back to it now….  Or not?

[11] Same problem here …

[12] Ref

[13] https://www.technologyreview.com/2014/10/06/250019/the-butterfly-effect-predicting-tsunamis-from-ripples/

 

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