Feature Forum
Includes a conversation between Bruce Jilk and Prakash Nair

Section 1
Are They
  Learning?
Case Study 1
  Harbor City
  USA

Section 2
Open
  Classrooms
Accountability
My Size
Case Study 2
  Heinavaara
  Finland

Section 3
Conclusion
Summary of
  New Concepts
Case Study 3
  Peele Campus
  Australia
References

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But Are They Learning?
Forum
A Conversation between Bruce Jilk and Prakash Nair

Bruce: Thanks for your great article, "But Are They Learning?" We need this kind of message repeated out there. I would like to add a few thoughts to this conversation. I hope this helps.

You might add a section titled "Is It Broken?" I agree with you on the challenges facing public education in the US, but many (who we need to reach) don't think it is broken. There is creditable data on high school drop outs, low performance, and non-engaged students. This would be better to put forth then things like "warehouse," "factory," or "industrial era." This language has been around, especially in the last 10 years. Because of this, as soon as educators hear/read these words they turn you off. 

Prakash: I appreciate your valuable input Bruce. When we talk about "is it broken" we are really asking the question twice - once to the urban community who must know it is broken. One large urban district school district in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg) is almost completely minority (over 99%) and, last year, graduated fewer students than were incarcerated. While Harrisburg is an extreme example, the failure of the education system in a majority of America's urban areas is so glaring as to make the question "is it broken" almost academic. The more interesting people to ask the question to are stakeholders of so-called "successful" schools - these are the people who have the most to lose by changing what they are doing. Today, more often than not, schools are considered "successful" that focus heavily and sometimes exclusively on the test taking skills that will get students into the best colleges. As long as going to college is the one real measure of how good a school is, it is unlikely that "college mills" will ever be seen as broken. That is why, regardless of the audience, I think it is impossible to answer this question before first entering into a dialog with the stakeholder community about what school should be. This dialog needs to be conducted in the context of studying why the various communities that have done something different (like the Heinavaara community) did what they did. 

Bruce: More on "warehouse." Laws (needed 100 years ago) require kids to go to school. Because most go to public schools, they take on a custodial role. To change this perspective we could repeal the laws. School could be seen more as a privilege and less as something mandatory. I doubt this will happen. The next best thing is stronger choice in schools. I am not a voucher fan, but more options would be good. The main message is that bad mouthing schools as warehouses will not move the cause forward. 

Prakash: My point about warehousing was made precisely because of the mindlessness involved in packing children off to school each morning. The world has changed much since the basic structure of school as we have it today was created - yet we insist on keeping this model intact. 

Giving choice to parents is great but such choice is a bit of an illusion when kids go across town to another school also set up along the same lines. In other words, if the fundamental idea of school as we know it is flawed, we are really working at the margins when we transfer kids from one school to the next. I must clarify here that I do not deny the benefits that accrue to children who are moved from severely dysfunctional environments to so-called "normal" schools. While we debate the best way to reform education, parents need the assurance that their children are safe and in the company of caring adults. 

I do agree that we need a more neutral term than "warehousing" because of all the negative baggage associated with this word relative to the educational debate. 

Bruce: More on "factory." Yes, the metaphor has a message, but it is not correct. In the 50's and 60's schools in the US changed for two main reasons. One was the post war baby boon and the resultant suburbanization. We needed big schools and we rationalized them (Conant, 59). This resulted in the cafeteria curriculum only big schools (especially high schools) could offer. The more courses offered, the better the school. High schools became mini colleges. And this worked (and still does) for college bound students. (Not that it is the best, but it is hard to argue with success). Of course this did little for the non college bound, not that many cared. The second change was brought about by Sputnik. This resulted in a very strong emphasis on science and math. And what a better format to take a discipline and make it special then the departmental organization. Again my main message is that being critical of factory like schools will not help reform. 

Education in developed countries is supported politically for a number of reasons. One is to have a workforce that adds value to the economy. Hopefully there are other reasons (quality of life, innovations, citizenship).

Prakash: I must again raise the question - what is success? If sending kids off to college is the reason why students should spend four years in a high school, I suppose most large, comprehensive suburban schools are successful. However, if you look beneath the surface of these large high schools, you will see the social pathologies there. Of course, they are less apparent than in the urban schools, but the dehumanizing aspects of these large behemoths should not be ignored. Such schools have a clear class system that I think sometimes rises to the level of a caste system. Students are "tracked" according to the adults' perception about their intelligence and there is little attempt to create the kind of caring, personalized environments I referred to earlier.

While on the subject, let me hasten to debunk the myth that kids who are good or even brilliant at science and math are more "intelligent" than those who are not. Let's face it. In this increasingly complex world, we need such "whiz kids" more than we ever did and we should do everything we can to encourage them to achieve their fullest potential. But do we have to make the other kids who have no interest in science and math look stupid in the process? What happened to actors and musicians and artists and architects? The counselors and naturalists and chefs and jewelers and librarians and historians and writers, marathon runners and entrepreneurs? Society will still need all these people so why are all children forced to compete with the future geneticists and rocket scientists and made to feel stupid and insecure about themselves?

Bruce: Equity. Good comments. This always comes up as an excuse to do the lowest common denominator. 

Prakash: Thanks! 

Bruce: Will it fly? More good examples needed.

Prakash: Good examples that ask this question early enough in the process are hard to come by. There is some evidence that only one in 100 schools is truly innovative and I suspect that only a small fraction of these schools are set up in equally innovative environments. That is why this dialog and programs such as the AWARDS program are important so we can get the word out and also encourage more discussion and debate about how to create places for learning. 

Bruce: Open Classrooms. The classification of Heinavaara with 60's/70's open schools is misleading and misses the concept behind the school. (But don't fee bad, most people didn't get it either.) The learning process the school was designed around was a systems based learning community. The good point you make here is that others should not copy. Maybe the most important point in the whole article. 

Prakash: I did not mean to "classify" Heinavaara as an "open classroom" school. In the end all such labels are limiting and never tell the whole story. My reference to Heinavaara was made because it is a school without walls that does work. I am hoping that people will look at this plan and realize that it is possible to organize schools without formal classrooms. What I also like about this plan is that it does not try to substitute the classroom with some other "modern" space such as the learning studio that I refer to in the article. A learning studio might indeed be the correct way to design some schools but one should not start with the assumption that there must be some sort of "room" - a place where the teacher and students are isolated within four walls. These are points that my reference to Heinavaara missed and so I'm glad to have this opportunity to clarify. About not copying a successful model blindly - let me reinforce the point that it is hard to make such transplants work because the process of the creation is almost as important as the product.

Bruce: Planners accountable? Another good message. I do wonder if making it a personal story with a bit of a negative spin is a good idea. This works in a presentation, but will turn some people off when delivered as text. 

Prakash: Agreed that some people will bristle at the personal example. By way of explanation, I wanted to move this discussion from the realm of theory to the everyday world in which people decide to spend billions of dollars without even a passing glance at the purpose of all that spending. It is interesting how a school district will ask a bunch of questions about how a $30 piece of software will enhance learning before buying it but do not feel the same need when it comes to a $30 million school building. My not-so-subtle reminder was intended to let everyone associated with education (be they bus drivers or school builders) know that they should all be pulling in the same direction - doing whatever it takes to engage students to become lifelong learners.

Bruce: One size - economy. I think the logic here is flawed. People who know education around the world will tell you that US schools leave a lot to be desired (as you imply), but they will also tell you that what is especially good about a US public school education is that you get a second, third, fourth chance. You do not get this in many other developed nations. This "multiple chances" may actually fit a free market economy. In any case I agree with you about one size fits all. 

Prakash: Don't want to get repetitive here, but students who take the traditional high school message really seriously (be obedient, never question or challenge authority and focus all your efforts on tests that will help us adults tell you how good you are) are the least likely to be entrepreneurial. Find me a successful entrepreneur and I'll find you someone who was a misfit in school (Stephen King comes to mind - he was almost expelled because he wrote a satirical piece about the school's teachers.) The free agent economy argument says that many, many millions of our children will be free agents in the coming years. While the rebellious souls will survive school and go on to be successful anyway, we need to ensure that schools do not break the spirit of the millions of others who need to be similarly equipped - to function effectively as free agents.

Bruce (follow-up): My implication about choice was that over time, through competition, schools would at least feel some pressure to improve. Free market similarities.

Bruce: "Menu." This stuff is OK. Some of it feels a lot like name changing (as presented). My question here is how does this set of parts overcome your observations about a 747. Same problem with different part? I know you have more behind this and you should share it. 

Prakash: The menu is just that. A menu. It is a way to explain that the "parts" themselves have changed - not a prescription about how to put them together or even if they are necessarily the right parts. Most people who agree with the thesis that change is needed will say, "Ok, I want to change - but what does that entail?" The answer is ,"We don't know exactly what that might be in your particular case, but take a look at what these other people did." It is a way to break people out of their comfort zone and reassure them that it is ok to do so. This is the strategy I've personally used with communities and almost always they buy into the notion of change without feeling compelled to copy what someone else did.

I hope that the rest of the article makes the 747 point - if it isn't going to help with learning, why are you doing it? Or conversely, if you know this is going to fly, why aren't you doing it?

Bruce: The role of school facilities in the education reform puzzle. Good comments but would benefit by having more tangible content and less generalizations.

Prakash: I hope that this dialog will encourage many others who have broken the mold to share their experiences with us. We need to create a database of such tangible examples and thus create a momentum to do things differently. 

Bruce: The other strong value is you begin to synthesize a lot of elements. I think you might want to further develop this synthesis in another context. I think that a synthesis would include observations about the relationships of these components.

Prakash: I think you have done this extremely well with your Iceland school. [See Freedom and Creativity, includes updated images by Bruce Jilk, April, 2002] It is a good demonstration of your idea of moving from text to a visual language is. The question is, how do we do this within the context of highly compartmentalized bureaucracies? Western Australia is one large municipality that seems to have succeeded in creating a process where the relationships between components are stressed while keeping the end goal - learning - in mind. I am working to document this process to show how it is possible for governments to exercise some control over education while still allowing for a completely unique solution in a given community.

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Your Comments and Ideas Welcome
Design Share invites your comments and ideas on the material presented in this discussion and the original article. Please email your comments to Editor Randy Fielding, editor: fielding@designshare.com 

 designshare.com | April 2002