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What's Stopping Us?

Moving Closer to Quality Learning Environments
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It’s Thursday afternoon in a school in Brampton, Ontario. The dismissal bell has rung, and staff members are anxiously waiting in the school library for the arrival of the principal who has called what has been billed as an extremely important meeting—a command performance!

“I’ve got news for you,” the principal declared as he entered the room and sat down. Our ears naturally perked up. 

“We’ve got to change. The world around us is changing and we have to change with it. We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about the work we do!”

And then he paused.

That’s all I remember about that meeting—except the date: February…1990!

In the weeks that followed, we engaged in lively discussions about new practices, student-centered learning, real-world problem solving and authentic tasks and assessments. Not everyone agreed with the new programs that were being introduced, but the school, the district and the province seemed to be pushing forward.

Yet today, some 20 years later, new generations of teachers continue to beat a path to a largely unchanged and unmoved schoolhouse. Curious, isn’t it? Maybe not!

In my last entry, I presented a list of criteria that could help us develop powerful and engaging learning tasks. Someone on my current staff saw the blog post and approached me this week with a rather poignant remark: “This is a great list, but we’ve been talking about this stuff for so long. Why aren’t we there yet?”

There is something stubbornly resistant about this place we call school. But what, exactly, is at the heart of this resistance. I used to think that the solution to the dilemma lay in getting people motivated and excited about new ideas.

But now I spend a good deal of my time thinking that there are more fundamental factors at play here. My new question:

If we have a sense of what the criteria for quality learning environments are, what are the things that we bump up against when we’re trying to develop these experiences at the classroom and school level?

In my own experience, I see several things that contribute to our current state of inertia when it comes to transformation. In this entry, I have chosen to focus on three of the “dissuaders” that I have encountered over the past three or four years.

First, the accountability movement that also began in our schools about 20 years ago (huh!) has actually narrowed our vision of what schools could be for our learners by forcing educators to focus primarily on things that can be easily measured. A charged-up, uber-excited group of teachers in September can quickly turn into a panicked and rather staid set of individuals as the deadline for the first set of report cards approaches. In the past several years, I have found it increasingly difficult to report on student progress using the rather narrow band of success defined by our current reporting system.

And let’s face it: many teachers are governed by yearly reporting cycles. If there is a mismatch between how we teach and how we are forced to report on what we teach, guess which one is going to win out? When push comes to pull, the tiny assessment boxes on the report card rule every time!

Point One: We need assessment, evaluation as well as reporting tools and cycles that are more reflective of the transformative practice that we want to encourage in our schools. We need to expand our notion of accountability to include much more than what can be tested.

Second, the architectural design of our school facilities goes a long way to controlling what actually happens within them on a consistent basis. Most school design is still based on the idea that learning takes place in small, isolated rooms with a single door. Despite a brief period in the late 60’s and early 70’s when walls started coming down in favour of more open learning spaces, this compartmentalized approach to design has been one of the most recognizable features of schools.

Not only are teachers limited to just a few possibilities when it comes to arrangement of learners and furniture, the potential of opening up classrooms to other resources: physical or human is also limited by size and space. Oddly enough, I’m finding that, instead of getting larger and more spacious, many new schools that I visit have even smaller classroom spaces, smaller library, and smaller common areas for collaborative meeting of staff, students and parents outside the confines of the classroom.

Point Two: The way that we imagine learning space will have a great influence on whether our visions of transformation will occur. We need transformation-minded teachers, learners and others to be part of design teams and committees, not just in the early stages, but throughout the entire planning and building process! (Do they make extra small hard-hats?)

Finally, we are still forced to think of schooling in terms of separate distinct curriculum areas. Many jurisdictions produce separate curriculum documents, written by separate curriculum teams and rolled out of district offices by separate groups of curriculum consultants. The chances of developing powerful and engaging integrated tasks at the classroom level is diminished by the way that this strict discipline-bound approach forces educators to envision their curriculum design.

Oh there are some advantages afforded by our current model of doing school. It  allows for easier scheduling of staff and learners, a more efficient balancing of time throughout the day, as well as the development of neat and tidy sets of data for—you guessed it—report cards.

The world that is meant to be the subject of our school-based investigations is, itself, a pretty complex place. And the life that we live within that world is becoming increasingly connected and integrated. We can no longer expect learners to be prepared to be a confident contributor to that world unless the learning experiences in which they are immersed throughout their schooling are somehow reflective of that complexity. And in order to do this, we need a curriculum that reflects the deeper relationships between and among the learning expectations that we develop and the documents that we write!

Point Three: A stronger focus on connective curriculum and interdisciplinary thinking must accompany any attempts to really transform the work of our classrooms. The most creative and imaginative teachers, despite their best intentions, will still declare the challenges they face in bringing to life a curriculum that is composed in silos.

So, there are my three entry points into the conversation about some of the challenges that we face in bringing our ideas for quality learning environments to life. But you have likely encountered your own points of resistance.

What do you see as the primary point of resistance in your own school experience? What are some of the ways that you have met and even overcome these challenges? Where is the most work needed if we are going to foster the development of quality learning environments for all students?


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