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Building Better Schools: What is the Answer?

Posted by on Apr 21, 2013 | 10 Comments

Over the last few months, I’ve explored the idea of going back into teaching. This has caused me to reflect on my previous 12 years in the classroom- specifically what lessons I learned about effective teaching. When I left the profession in 2011, I was burned out. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were doing more harm than good. I spent most of my last year reading about education reform from the likes of Gotto, Dewey, and a host of other educational theorists. I also spent a lot of time pondering how schools could adopt many of the lessons learned from the likes of Tim Ferriss, Seth Godin, and Chris Guillebeau. I even started a teaching blog to share my thoughts.

Then Shelly and I decided to leave the profession and hit the road. I pretty much stopped thinking about schools. Education was still at the forefront as we experimented with unschooling our kids, but I wasn’t worried about trying to reform how our schools worked.

When I started contemplating a move back to the classroom, I started to revisit my previous thoughts. Since several years have passed, I no longer have a strong emotional response to the feeling of failing students. The time has allowed me to reflect on the past experiences and learn. It has also allowed me to do more extensive research on schools, teachers, best practices, human motivation, and how we learn. All of this serves a single purpose: Discovering what the ideal school would look like, then make that happen. What started out as a “refresh my memory about the teaching profession” activity has turned into a “start an effective school” quest.

The quest has been fascinating. I have an idea for a school, but it goes against pretty much every current practice. I’ve shared a few elements of the school with others. Not surprisingly, the ideas have proven to be exceedingly unpopular in every population with twos notable exception- the homeschoolers and the Montessori advocates.

Sidebar- none of the ideas are original… many have been implemented or discussed by people smarter than me. I’m just combining various elements into a practical package that could be easily done.

Some of the ideas are pretty simple and don’t garner much objection like basing the school on solving real-world problems in the local community or limiting the size of the school to 100-150 members. Other ideas are a little more radical like the elimination of grading, grade levels, formal curriculum, and focusing on establishing and maintaining autonomy for each and every student. Most people can get on board with those ideas.

I start losing a lot of supporters when I introduce the idea of a democratic school- the school is run by the members. Everyone gets a vote. It violates our sense that kids aren’t responsible enough for something like running a school.

I REALLY lose a lot of supporters with the most radical of ideas- the school would be open to anyone of any age, there are no teachers, everyone is a volunteer, and the school operates with a budget of zero dollars.

Even though the ideas have been implemented before and are firmly grounded in empirical research, the school violates almost every principle of what we believe schools should be. Most people immediately begin making a list of the reasons the idea won’t work instead of thinking of the possibilities if it does work.

Think of the possibilities- kids would interact with adults to solve problems in their local communities. It would build social ties, lead to civic responsibility, make all learning intrinsic, teach real leadership skills, teach people how to solve unique problems using the resources available to them, eliminate the problems of boring classrooms, teacher burnout, and adversarial relationships within schools, eliminate the heavy tax burden of our current school system, offer infinite flexibility to prepare people for the present and future… the list goes on and on.

What about the cost of my school? Surely there has to be a negative. Indeed. The entire school would require us to give up control. While this always sounds easy, most of us aren’t capable of trusting human nature. We don’t believe people, kids especially, can be self-directed learners. Once we get past this, the only other real objection could come from those presently making a living in the present education system. Since my school is entirely volunteer-based, the lifers would have to find another source of income to participate. I have a feeling this would be impossible for most. As much as professional educators like to say they always put kids first, earning a decent paycheck is always a higher priority.

I’m faced with a difficult decision- what do I do in the immediate future? Do I try to find a teaching job in a typical school? I really don’t think I can handle that again. Do I try to find a school that’s pushing the innovation envelope? That idea is exciting and a very real possibility. Or do I run with my school idea? Honestly, that last option scares the Hell out of me… which is precisely why it may be my only choice.



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  1. Garry
    May 3, 2013

    Have you read “Walking on Water” by Derrick Jensen? Great story of teaching at college and prison concurrently. Abolished grading. All about experience. Focused on creating writers.

  2. Phil
    May 1, 2013

    This sounds great. Anything outside the normal in this country that is proven to work elsewhere is exciting to me. I heard Seth Godin on a Ted talk about this and it greatly perked my interest. We homeschool now, but I love looking at enjoyable and successful methods to switch things up.
    I can’t imagine you going back into the normal school system, you would probably feel like you are carrying out a prison term.

  3. Vert Masta
    April 30, 2013

    I did ok n school, but the whole point of public school is to mis-educate children. Especially Black children. n all 50 states Black children r required to take White history, but they barly learn their own history. All we leaned was blacks n slavery and n the Civil Rights Movement. We never learned about Marces Garvey, Ida B Wells, or the Black Panther Party Movement. Destruction of the Black mind I guess.

  4. Michelle
    April 29, 2013

    Have you read How to Survive in Your Native Land by James Herndon? If you haven’t (you probably have) I suspect you’d enjoy it as the author recounts his attempts to do the very things you want to do, but within a traditional school. It’s downright funny, sad, even bawdy…

  5. Chris Fielding
    April 27, 2013

    I would start it after school for kids and families who want to be there. If they don’t, they can hit the road. Then who knows where it might lead. Thinking of something similar myself and have been for a little while.

  6. Ehd
    April 26, 2013

    It’s been awhile since I read the report so I have no reference and probably am not even recalling it correctly but I once read about a school that actually operated in a way that sounds pretty similar to what your proposing. Unfortunately, the kids that came out of the school were often dysfunctional in the “real world” and suffered as adults with many committing suicide. Not an endorsement of the current system, which is awful, but perhaps evidence of “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”.

  7. Richard
    April 23, 2013

    I like all your ideas – I’m trying to put them into practice myself – except the volunteer part, at least full-time. I have a family to support, and I want to spend time with them. I couldn’t possibly teach full-time for free, work another job to pay for everything, and still find time to spend the amount of time I want to with my family.

    I’ve been lucky enough to see and experience education in various countries. Finland has a great reputation for education for a number of reasons, including some of the things you advocate. The other thing is the amount of respect that teachers receive and earn. They are highly educated and trained, and highly motivated and dedicated. Students also have loads of autonomy, solve real world problems, and don’t take many tests.

  8. John Y.
    April 22, 2013

    What Damien said!!! Seriously considering the magnitude of getting your ideas heard by the purveyors of modern schooling…um…”Curriculum”, you would be better off doing it grassroots style. Similar to how you and Shelly spread the minimalist word, perhaps??? Imagine that, you travel the country and people seek YOU out for your ideas and wisdom. Starting small (Damien’s idea!!!) and letting word of mouth spread would be a better, more manageable model. Once the idea follows the normal trends (similar to barefoot/minimalist running) you will have a massive enough following to get the “educators” to notice what you are doing. In a sense, they will be unable to ignore you because you will be far too noticeable.

  9. Damien Tougas
    April 22, 2013

    Why not try it out on your own kids first? Then add another family, and another, and grow it from there? Start small and see what happens.

  10. Kate Nowak
    April 21, 2013

    If you’re serious, you should probably talk to Shawn Cornally. Who’s the person closest to anyone to starting a school aligned with your principles. Except, you know, a real one, where people who do the specialized work of teaching content are paid for their effort. Disclaimer: you might have to move to Iowa.