Starting a Different Conversation

If you were given the chance to start a new school, what kind of school would it be?

It’s the sort of opportunity many educators talk about, and then reality strikes. Are you talking about building a new school, or simply starting anew with an existing one? What constraints do I have? Do I get to select my own staff? Who would I be responsible to? And what governance and compliance checks would I inherit?

It’s the sort of scenario that you might dream about, but then how many new schools do we see constructed every year and how many are really different? And by this ‘different’ I mean different in their functional design; different in the ways in which they will allow or rather provoke vibrant learning opportunities for the inhabitants?

Isn’t it interesting that the first thing that comes to mind when we talk of a new school is nearly always the building. While it’s true that how a school presents itself is important, I would suggest that too often building design just camouflages legacy practice and hinders different thinking. I can’t count the number of times I have visited schools that have celebrated architectural status which disappoints the minute you walk inside. Of course there are exceptions, and to be fair schools such as Hellerup in Copenhagen and Dallas Brooks Community Primary in Victoria are two where the innovative design matches the innovative practice inside.

So what kind of school would your new school be? How would it be different? Maybe the best starting point might be an existing building because it takes away the distraction and distortion that can come from inevitably prolonged debate around new buildings. Surely one of the best examples of this can be found in Philadelphia, where one of the most innovative schools in the country, Science Leadership Academy is housed in what could be best described as humble circumstances, while a little way down the road the School of the Future has too often attracted more publicity about the $63 million building than any of the achievements of its students.

So we’re giving you existing premises, so that now you can focus on the things that really matter. What are they? Where will you start, and how is your school really going to be different…or will it just be yet another incremental improvement on the existing models?

To help move your thinking along, maybe we should look to the commercial sector and ‘think like a startup’. That might at least provide a fresh perspective and a different mindset, and some of the more common startup attributes  seem certainly to be worth considering in your new school.

  1. Flat Hierarchy. Today’s new enterprises want to keep leaders and innovators connected, so wherever possible they dispense with traditional middle management structures and seek to empower their staff at all levels. Companies like games designer Valve have created a culture in their organisation that has been integral to their success as innovators. What would be the impact of a flat hierarchy in your new school?
  2. Agile and Nimble. If we throw in ‘iterative’ we have the trifecta of clichés for 2016, but the rate of change in the world in which startups are being created means to be succcesful, they simply have no choice. Are these words we associate with our schools today? They certainly should be, if we believe we are providing an environment which prepares our young people for that changing context they will be working in…or starting up new companies.
  3. Passion. I’m not sure too many startups have been successful without a driving passion, not just from their founders but from all staff who have belief and commitment in making what starts as a vision, and becomes a reality. Sound familiar? How can ensure your staff will be aligned with the mission and vision for your school?
  4. Technology-rich. Startups are borne of technology, and they leverage, provoke and use it in whatever manner they need to so they get results. It is not optional, it is an assumption and its ubiquitous presence changes the possibilities in very powerful ways.
  5. Everyone has agency. Related to a flat hierarchy, but everyone is empowered, everyone is accountable. Try that on for size in your new school.

It’s a funny thing, but often when you ask educators why aren’t they thinking of different models of schooling rather than just incrementally improving the existing one, compliance usually raises its ugly head. Whether it be standards or curriculum, or both, it’s hard to work out just how much the lack of agency for both teachers and school leaders is real or perceived…or is it just convenience?

I am reminded of the point that Larry Rosenstock makes very clearly in the Most Likely to Succeed video after his staff suggest that their students only cover between 40-60% of ‘state standards’.

“Ultimately”, he says, “As professionals all staff at High Tech are trusted to decide what they belief their students should know; and they are totally accountable for that because all of them are employed on 12 month renewable contracts”.  Like I said; empowered and accountable… by choice.

Hence the point of this column and ‘your new school’. Let’s free up the conversation a bit, and think more ambitiously about what might be different…and how you might be able to make that happen.

Under what conditions do you believe you could create a school that provides your students with the opportunity to learn most powerfully and deeply?

As a changeleader we’d love to hear your thoughts.  I hope you can join us in our global community on facebook today

Image Credit: Dallas Brooks Community Primary School

3 thoughts on “Starting a Different Conversation”

  1. Jenny L

    I would start with aligning values with school structures, not physical ones, but how we organise ourselves to optimise learning for all, staff and students.

    1. Bruce Dixon

      I agree 100% Jenny. The physical comments were made to remove those considerations from the discussion. It would be great if you could share more of your experience in doing this, the challenges you faced and the outcomes from that works, for both staff and students.

  2. Josie H

    I would start with pedagogy, philosophy and values.

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