Education Reform | Spotlight

The Modern School: Reclaiming Creativity and the Language of Learning

Our job as educators is not creating the workforce of tomorrow, argues Science Leadership Academy Founding Principal Chris Lehman. It's creating the citizenry of tomorrow. "If we shoot for the citizenry, we will get the workforce by default." Teachers must take back the language of the classroom, reclaim their creativity and create a shared vocabulary that makes sense to the children under their care.

If the modern school is to succeed, teachers must take back the language of the classroom, reclaim their creativity and create a shared vocabulary that makes sense to the children under their care.

“I get to talk teachers all over the country, and what I am hearing more than anything else is a profound sense of unease,” proclaimed Chris Lehman, founding principal of Science Leadership Academy in his keynote address last Friday at the FETC 2014 conference in Orlando, FL.

According to Lehman, there is a growing number of teachers who don’t believe their school is getting things right. To make matters worse, many of these same teachers have concerns about their own children’s education. “This is a problem,” he said, “because we’ve created this delineation between teachers and parents that puts them on opposite sides of the debate.” In reality, “we are the same constituency, and we need to leverage that.”

Lehman framed his address by identifying three biases:

  1. “I believe,” he said, in the idea of using new tools to realize old ideas. “School 2.0 can be grounded in the ideas of people like John Dewey” because we finally have the tools to leverage Dewey’s dream at amazing speed.
  2. “I also believe it is not our job to create the workforce the country needs.” Our job is instead to create the citizenry we need. “If we shoot for the citizenry, we will get the workforce by default.”
  3. “Finally,” he said, “I am a huge proponent of public education.” Public education is, according to Lehmann, at the heart of the American democratic experiment and is a requirement of our society if we are going to live up to our democratic ideals.

The Problem
According to Lehman, “School stinks for way too many kids.” The problem is our use of the compliance model to educate. “You do what you are told, over and over, and over again,” he said. “And when you ask why we’re doing this, you don’t get a good answer.” We don’t tell kids why they are doing things, how they will help or apply to their lives and their futures.

“‘Why do I need to know this,’” said Lehmann, “should be statement one of the student’s bill of rights. It is every child’s fundamental right to ask this question.” And, he added, it is the educator’s responsibility to give answers that are both honest and reflective. “We should never answer that question with ‘because someone told me I had to teach it,’ or ‘someone told me I had to learn it’ or ‘because it’s on the test.’”

According to Lehmann, because students can’t draw logical connections between what they’re learning and their daily lives, they’re beginning to ask very scary questions, like "Is school relevant?" “And that,” he said “raises scary questions for teachers, like ‘Am I relevant?.'"

“Teaching” said Lehmann, “is fundamentally linked to who we are as people. It is in our souls,” which is what makes questioning our relevance so scary. It is also part of what makes teachers best equipped to redefine the relevance of the school experience. And yet, he said, “teachers continue to suffer from what I call ‘just a teacher’ syndrome.” We are more than "just teachers," he said. “We need to overcome this mindset. We need to stop believing that anybody has more of a say in what goes on in our schools and how to build them than we do.”

Building the Modern School
In order to truly realize our potential, Lehmann outlined what he identified as the necessary components of the modern school.

Dream bigger: According to Lehmann, we don’t need a better way to take a quiz; we need to fundamentally change the way we think about the day itself. We need to be creative and expansive and innovative. “Kids should leave our walls,” he said, “as voracious learners.”

Develop a sense of active, vigorous play: We need to refocus ourselves on what’s good for the child and stop simply doing what’s good for us. Lehmann challenged the audience to make conscious decisions about what they’re willing to unlearn. “Think about what are you doing in the classroom that’s about you, not the kids,” he said. “And then think about what you will replace it with.”

Build caring institutions: “We teach kids,” said Lehmann, “not subjects.” When talking about what we do, he said, we need to use different language. “We should say ‘I teach third graders,’ not ‘I teach third grade.’ Children,” he said, “should never be the implied object of their own education. Put them front and center in your language.”

Make schools inquiry driven: For Lehmann, “We don’t need to be asking questions we already know the answers to." Schools need to ask the questions we don’t know the answers to. We need to dare kids to ask question that they don’t know the answers to and encourage them to take the skills we are teaching them and apply them in the world.

Kids need to be teacher-mentored: They may not tell you this, said Lehmann, but “kids need adults.” They need those voices in their lives, and we, as leaders, need to create more spaces for kids to be mentored by the adults in the school.

Schools can be community-based, right now: There is a vibrant community inside our schools, and we need to start sharing that with the larger community outside our walls. “We’ve got the technology to make this happen,” he said. We can invite scientists and historians and authors into our classrooms without them actually needing to be there. “And it’s awesome.”

We have to be passionate: Schools need to help students find their voice and then take the time to listen. “School can be real life and kids can do amazing work if we support them.”

The day has to be integrated and make sense: There is no guaranty that the myriad teachers children see in a day are speaking the same language, said Lehmann. Schools need common values, common rubrics and a common language to create an integrated environment. We need to use themes, central questions and common tools, he added, because “every moment students spend trying to figure [teachers] out is a moment they are not spending figuring out the work.”

Encourage students to be meta-cognitive, thinking about the way they think: We are trying to get students to understand the way they learn and give them the capability to think about the way they think. For Lehmann, this means creating space to reflect on the “why” of their learning, not just the “what.”

Learning should be understanding-driven: According to Lehmann, the most impactful learning happens “when the work the kids create is the most important work of the class.” True understanding happens, he said, when kids truly have skin in the game.

Changing the world: Closing his talk, Lehmann raised an imposing question: “How do we change the world?” It isn’t easy, he said, but if we are to truly change the world for our students by creating modern, engaging schools and classrooms, we must commit to these things:

  1. We must be humbled by the task [of teaching] and be skeptical of those who aren’t.
  2. We need to acknowledge that inquiry is for all of us. And we should never settle for easy answers.
  3. We have to lead. That means “getting everyone on the bus.”
  4. We have to organize, and we have to do it now.
  5. We need to ensure that our ideas live in practice. We can do that by building systems and structures that reflect a shared vision.
  6. We need to consistently ask the questions: What do you think? What do you need? How do you feel? And we need to pay attention to — and respond to — the answers.
  7. We should problematize everything, and ask ourselves: “What’s the worst consequence of your best idea?”
  8. We need to empower our students and remember it’s their education, and it is going to be their work.
  9. We need to be one school, and that means being what you are for everyone, not just a subset of the population.
  10. We need to continue the conversation and keep everyone talking.
  11. We should always have fun!
  12. We must be willing to be transformed by this work, and recognize that we have so much left to learn.
  13. Finally, we need to remember that we teach wisdom (not subjects).
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