Transforming a School, Together
In my limited experience, it is rare to find a school united around a common vision. Sure, everyone has a "mission statement" or "core values," but these rarely live outside a piece of paper or an inspirational sign on a wall.
Education today is, in many ways, broken. To fix it, we need communities united around common visions, those who can push against systems which have historically failed many of the people they were meant to help. We need innovators who can recognize both what is needed and what might be possible. Unfortunately, the structure of most public schools (those that serve the vast majority of students educational systems have failed) is not conducive to the kind of cultures of collaborative innovation which broken systems – from healthcare to building systems to economies – desperately need.
At UAGC, we are seeking to reverse the traditional, and oppressive, systems that dominate education. For us, it began by working to change the traditional classroom structures, which too often look like that command and control figure on the left, to structures which encourage student responsibility, intention, and collaboration.
As we implemented this as an integral part of the curriculum across all classrooms, using the Learning Cultures® model, it became apparent that the system in which we were working was also structured against the collaborative work we were encouraging the students to do - even the way the model started was a command initiating from the principal. Because of this, many teachers resisted the changes being put in place to help turnaround a struggling school. To deal with this struggle, we made the mistake of running to authoritarian structures to uphold the emerging vision of what the school might be, rather than engaging in the more difficult process of collaboration and contribution through discourse.
Fast-forward three years, and the story of our turnaround is still an evolution towards learning to collaborate – students with students, students with teachers, teachers with teachers, teachers with administrators, and admin with admin. We're not perfect, as anyone from these groups could tell you. We're working hard to shake those old structures which too often feel easier, because on the surface there appears to be more control.
Yet as Kim Farris-Berg points out in her article about collective autonomy, this disruptive innovation is hard to do in such an entrenched culture as education. Too often the systems do not support the teachers who most want to solve the vexing problems. Organizations like Education Evolving and Teacher-Powered Schools offer real vision for how to create those cultures of innovation for teacher collaboration. I look forward to a day when these are the norm, and not the exception, in education.
To make that vision real, though, we need to contribute to the conversation. In student reading groups across all contents at UAGC, we teach each other to "breach" – to make our thinking visible to one another.
As one 9th grader said to an 11th grader, who sat silently at the table, "You gotta let us know what you're thinking! How are we ever going to figure this out if we don't talk about it?"
This allows us to engage in discourse, which is where real learning –and innovation – begins. Command and control systems are only dismantled when enough people open up to the collaborative possibilities of real discourse together.
Let us know what you're thinking - that's exactly how we're going to figure this out.