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


  1. Very enjoyable read. School designed to teach conformity and compliance. The irony (if irony is the correct term since I was a math teacher) is we want kids to be inspired to be creative. We want to prepare kids to be innovators and dreamers as long as you did your ch. 3 homework # 1-55 all in pencil. We get the tabula rasa....maybe so we can write the story for them and can maintain the status quo.

  2. Hi, Scott!
    Yes, yes, yes--all true!! Do take a look at the DesignShare link with video of new uses of space in schools: the space defines the activity (as every nursery school teacher knows!). Also take a look at Fielding-Nair site (Google it)and check out their photos of school designs all over the world. I love these guys and their conceptual use of design to fuel change!! PK