Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What Are the Parameters of Your Sandbox?

Did you ever notice that all pre-school teachers, and kindergarten teachers for that matter, have one important trait in common?   They consciously, subconsciously, and unfailingly create the physical environment that will promote the desired behavior from their kids:  Their placemats in a circle so kids will sit in a circle on the floor, a tricycle lane and kiddie cops to make sure trikes stay safely within the lines, books on small tables of four so kids will share pictures with each other, personal cubbyholes so everyone can store their own crayons.  You know what I mean.  So, my question is this:  What behavior did we have in mind when we designed schools (and are still designing schools) in separate little boxes called classrooms with desks in careful rows and silence enforced by the teacher's presence at the front of each room (sometimes actually sitting behind a big desk)?

The answer to that would be, let's see, regimented, silent, listening behavior, uninterrupted by flights of fancy, comments, or other noise; and no moving around; and going from one classroom like this to several others every day on a permanent rotation of 55 minutes each.  I'm only slightly exaggerating and anyone who has ever been to high school will certainly recognize the pattern.  At one high school where I was an administrator, we actually had the teachers all shadow a student for one whole day, following him/her to every class.  The teachers were outraged and dismayed, especially with the boring drivel their colleagues (and they, too) piled on the "general" students.  They all complained that their rear-ends hurt and they were bored out of their minds and how could the kids stand it?

Well, it didn't take us long after that (one year of planning) to change the culture of the entire school, starting with team-taught, cross-disciplinary two-hour blocks for all freshmen, aided by a dedicated computer lab and multimedia systems for freshman teachers, plus personal and team support for each group of ninth graders.  This was around 1990, when the "back-to-basics" movement that has now leached all creativity out of schools, was in its infancy.  The teachers did all the research to select their integrated approach (in an ethnically diverse public high school of 2200) and even talked their colleagues into moving out of their classrooms to make a couple of special freshman pods for the new design.

Despite all the excitement and two years of very successful implementation, when personnel changed and the daily pressure lapsed, "the system" snapped back into place like an overstretched rubber band.  Before long, under new "leadership," the school's reputation waned, the faculty's energy did, too, and it was back to the faceless hordes trudging from classroom to classroom.  For one brief shining moment, we all had (gasp!) FUN; obviously, that could not be sustained over the long haul, right?  A long way of saying that all the collaborative energy was no match for the culture of isolation and disconnection that our traditional approach to school requires:  that one-classroom, one-teacher, delivering- information model.  That assembly-line model where each child goes bumping down the conveyor belt, has information added, and pops out at the end either stamped "Standard" or dropped off the line like so much slag if the child doesn't fit the mold.

Having watched this entire pattern play out over 25 years in public schools as a teacher and school and district administrator, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that all those outraged conversations about "the system" heard in every teacher lunchroom and parent meeting were being echoed by other change agents in different fields.   I discovered that artists, architects, writers, scientists, musicians, and other creatives were seeing the same thing, and talking about it:  Here, for example, is the latest commentary by the president of an international architectural firm engaged in school design:  The Classroom Is Obsolete.  In part, he says, "The classroom is a relic, left over from the Industrial Revolution."   From the standpoint of design, we have consistently painted ourselves into a corner, the better to do the "basics" and to prevent our teachers and kids from engaging in collaborative, creative, critical thinking and doing.   Wow, I thought; we are saying exactly the same thing! 

An earlier commentary had enthralled me and prompted me to contact this firm, because nothing makes more sense than, as all pre-school teachers are wont to do, designing the environment to elicit the behavior we want to promote.  Thus, if we want clever, other-directed, creative, smart, articulate kids who grow into creative, productive, entrepreneurial adults--as we all have to be this century--then how must schools look to achieve that effect?  Read all about it (and more) on the international forum DesignShare and, while you are there, marvel, as I did that, in all possible ways, Changing the Schools Can Change the World

A Novel Way to Promote Change

As an added note on the post "What Are the Parameters of Your Sandbox?" I was recently notified that the education director of DesignShare had read my novel, Angel Park, and wanted to feature it in the first newsletter for the creative design site.   Wow!  Fast company, I thought, and gladly provided the needed information.  So, here is my novel about school reform and cultural change in the inaugural edition of this prestigious international newsletter:

A Novel Way to Promote Change Agency

In ANGEL PARK, a novel about school reform that centers on the mystery surrounding the death of a school official, the characters’ lives and attitudes are shaped by the buildings that contain them. Despite its attempt at modernity, the school district reveals its real story at the ringing of each bell when “the pressure of all the classroom doors shutting simultaneously” allows students to be “vacuum-sealed into each tiny micro-climate.” Thus, the educational spaces embody and perpetuate the sense of isolation and disconnection that still permeates the traditional school system, despite a century of human progress in the outside world.

The author, Patricia Kokinos, a veteran teacher and school and district administrator in both California and New York, saw these buildings and the fictionalized but true events of the story as a microcosm of the issues of school reform. She offers the unique perspective of fiction to give readers an emotional sense of the forces, both human and societal, that stifle change and the deep beliefs we may have to uproot to make some changes that count. ANGEL PARK is available on Amazon (, and more about its awards and reviews can be found on the author’s school reform website,

--from the inaugural newsletter for DesignShare, a global forum for innovative school design,   See the entire newsletter for October 2011.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Message from India

"The future is unknowable and cannot be predicted. A child who joins school today will retire in 2065 and can be expected to live up to the age of 85. The challenge for schools is staring us in the face."  These are the words of Lt. Gen. Arjun Ray, a decorated leader of India's school improvement efforts and now CEO of an independent international school in Bangalore.  An online friend of mine who works on school change in Atlanta sent me the link to this message from India, because it states so eloquently why schools in the developing world are moving ahead and schools in America continue to struggle.
For one thing, life in India, the country that completely jumped over the Industrial Age and took up residence in the Information Age without a backward glance, is not about "test scores."  As Gen. Ray states, "There prevails a lot of confused thinking on what is the fundamental purpose of schools."  Indeed.
Gen. Ray believes schools should have a social objective to play a worthwhile part in the progress of the 21st century, with a "new literacy" that includes competencies in "higher purpose and vision, how to be creative, how to think critically, and how to be lifelong learners."   While U.S. schools may say some of these same things, they are not concepts that are valued by a system that prizes test scores above all else.  As Gen. Ray sees it, "Schools should, therefore, look upon themselves as agents of change and not as repositories of knowledge."
Ah, there's the crux of the argument:  What are schools trying to accomplish?  If we are no longer training factory workers for the discipline of standing at conveyor belts for long boring hours, being silent and focused on their narrow tasks, then why are we still running our schools as if that were their purpose?   If we, too, want our students to be creative, to have a sense of purpose and vision, how must we change things to create that outcome?
The person with the best answer to that question is Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford professor who originally advised President Obama on education issues.  She was recently featured in a webinar on, explaining in great detail why the tests our students take now in NO way prepare them for their own futures.
The challenges today, she says require "motivated and self-reliant citizens and risk-taking entrepreneurs" who have a new set of abilities including solving problems, working in teams, creating, innovating and criticizing, reflecting on and improving performance.  These new expectations, in turn, require a major shift in schools, away from the recall and recognition--simple, low-level abilities--that form the basis of our testing programs. 
Here's an American test question in science:
  • What two gases make up most of the Earth's atmosphere?
1.       Hydrogen and oxygen
2.       Hydrogen and nitrogen
3.       Oxygen and carbon dioxide
4.       Oxygen and nitrogen
Contrast this simple, easy to machine-score "standardized test" question with the "rich task" from a state exam in Queensland, Australia:
  • Students must identify, explore, and make judgments on a biotechnological process to which there are ethical dimensions. 
  • They must choose and explore an area of biotechnology, identify and use laboratory practices, and research frameworks of ethical principles that apply to their issue.
  • Students provide a written explanation of technological differences in techniques used and present a deep analysis of the ethical issues involved.
  • Further, they must select six real-life people whose views contribute to the issue and plan materials for a conference at which these scientists will speak, based on research of their views.
The Australian exam, and others that Dr. Darling-Hammond cites from England, Singapore, and other countries, obviously involves a wide range of skills, assessing student competencies in such areas as research and analysis, understanding of ethical issues and principles, lab practices, organization and communication, understanding of biological and chemical systems, etc.  That's why it's called a "rich task" and why, as an assessment of AUTHENTIC work, it requires an entirely different mode of teaching--also richer, more in-depth, more purposeful.

Darling-Hammond points out that worldwide school reform makes such assessments part of a "tightly integrated SYSTEM of standards, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher development."  A SYSTEM designed to train teachers as it trains students to think in creative ways:  The goal for the NEW American public education system.