What Does It Mean to Reimagine School?

Of all the revolutions and evolutions being called for in the noisy narrative surrounding modern education, the notion of reimagining school is one that resonates with many. The daunting prospect of rethinking what schools should be, what learning could be, and what learners might be is a compelling one. It’s an ambition that sits well within a contemporary context in which many talented teachers and school systems are already engaging in this work. Yet these pockets of progress are set against a broader backdrop of rapid social change and inequality, underfunding in public education, a conservative backlash against progressive initiatives, and an often disillusioned teaching profession in many regions. At the same time, the ‘school is broken’ mantra is, itself, badly broken. A narrative that embraces the power of the imagination offers a constructive opportunity to rethink conventional schooling. If we really threw off the systemic shackles, if we consistently – and as a priority – honoured the profession of teaching with integrity, the enterprise of learning with humanity, what could school be? And, if we have a sense of what it should be, then what is preventing it from happening?

There continues to be considerable frustration expressed at what we intuitively know schools can be and what they continue to be. Richardson has articulated this dichotomy succinctly: “Why does there continue to be such a large gap between what we know and believe about learning and what we actually do in classrooms? Why do we continue to make it about grades rather than learning? Why, in our curriculum, do we ignore so many of the complexities that our kids will have to face in the modern world?” In part, we know that the answers to these questions reside with government agencies, school leaders, parents, teachers, and even students themselves who find reflexive comfort in the security of the known, of what they intuit school should look like, of the assessment of success in safe, traditional ways, and – ultimately – of the organization of learning around metrics of compliant accountability. So, what might the reimagined school look like?

Fullan, Quinn, and McEachen in their recent book, Deep Learning: Engage the World – Change the World, view reimagined learning in the context of what they term deep learning:

“If we want learners who can thrive in turbulent, complex times, apply thinking to new situations, and change the world, we must reimagine learning: what’s important to be learned, how learning is fostered, where learning happens, and how we measure success. This means creating environments that challenge, provoke, stimulate, and celebrate learning. We call this new conceptualization of the learning process deep learning, and it must become the new purpose of education.”

For the authors, deep learning is essentially personal. It’s characterized by student agency, connections to self and intercultural identity, the development of skills, knowledge, self-confidence, and self-efficacy through inquiry. Deep learning is about relationships and the human desire to connect with others to do good. Fullan, Quinn, and McEachen cite the work of Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch designer, architect, and innovator, who has made the following recommendations for reimagined learning environments:

  • Create learning driven by curiosity where “learners are infiltrators and shapers of the future.” This means working on real issues of relevance to themselves and the world.
  • Teach students to be problem designers. This shifts the starting point from thinking in terms of opinions of “what is” to thinking of proposals of “what could be.”
  • Pose problems in which children can be involved, not just asked to solve. Provide opportunities for finding solutions to new ambiguities, not just finding an answer to a problem problem that already has been answered.
  • Foster living as a perpetual amateur where learning is all about taking risks and is a lifelong venture.
  • Believe children will exceed all our expectations—where we teach them not to be scared (of the unknown) but rather to be curious.
  • Recognize that innovation and creativity are already in the DNA of every human being.

Given that there are many propositions that point to a potentially dynamic way forward in education, given that there are existing frameworks that espouse these very approaches to learning, why is it that this is not the norm in schools? Why do many schools continue to cling to tired strategic plans, outdated conceptions of what matters in learning, traditional approaches to grading and archaic systems of reward to motivate learners? Psychologist David L. Gleason’s research has shown that, despite our very best efforts and beliefs, the inclination of formal education is to overwhelm students, not empower them. Throughout his work in public, independent and international schools, Gleason has uniformly discovered that genuine, core, philosophical convictions about learning and a desire to reimagine school are too often sacrificed with learners paying a high price as a result:

“Against our best intentions but driven by our own fears, we overschedule, overwork, and sometimes overwhelm them. We set them up for frustration and failure when we expect them to think and act like adults long before they have actually developed those capacities. We reward high achievement over effort, and most of all, we overfocus on the college process almost from the moment they arrive.”

Regardless of earnest, carefully-crafted mission statements, the cold reality of judgment by narrowly-defined measures of success quickly sidelines other well-intentioned and noble aspirations. The incentives for students to relentlessly accumulate conventional accomplishments suffocates opportunity for reflection. The misappropriated concept of academic rigor results, ironically, in the dumbing down of potentially life-worthy learning into easily-assessable chunks of content. As Gleason puts it, “We model and, therefore, we normalize overscheduled behaviour.”The drive to do more is relentless. And at what cost?

Schools, it would seem, truly need to be reimagined. Is it as simple as having the moral courage to make it happen, or is there, perhaps, a deeper, more complex set of challenges that we need to openly and honestly discuss, deconstruct, and address? I work in a school that is committed to taking such challenges seriously. The International School of Brussels hosts its second Learning by Design Conference in February, 2019. Learning by Design is a call to re-imagine the way schools facilitate learning in a culture characterized by open knowledge systems, inclusive educational communities, and rapid social change. Learning by Design places the learner at the heart of the experience and aims to promote conversation around contemporary topics in education that preoccupy us. I’ve shared some of my burning questions. What are yours? Join the conversation here. If we truly believe in the human capacity of learners and schooling as something more vital than preparation for more schooling, if we believe that it is about relationships and the human desire to connect with others to do good, that it has the capacity to address social inequality and injustice, then what are the things we need to stop doing today and start doing tomorrow?

REFERENCES
Richardson, Will. “Willing to Be Affirmed.” Modern Learners, July 24, 2018.
Fullan, Michael; McEachen, Joanne; Quinn, Joanne. Deep Learning: Engage the World – Change the World. Corwin, 2018.
Gleason, David L. At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools. Developmental Empathy LLC, 2017.

Image Credit: The Starfish Model by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND.