In all my years of education, one essential question always seems to return to me. What if school was about what we ‘could’ do instead of what we ‘can’t’ do?
As millions of school-aged students return to their classrooms this year, many, if not the majority, will be greeted by rules, policies, expectations, syllabi, homework, calendars and schedules. Very few will learn about what the possibilities could be. Very few will find school inspiring, motivation or engaging.
Obviously, this is not a brand new topic or issue for us edu Insurgents. Indeed, at every school I’ve worked, I’ve questioned and worked to redesign the on-boarding experiences for all students. I’ve shared the idea of school being more about ‘no’ than ‘yes.’
How can we transform schools into environments that communicate to students that these are place of limitless possibilities instead of learned limited liabilities? Here are some things that could help assist in this transformation:
Create a Truly Kid Kulture
Educators and Education loves to profess that “Kids First” or “We’re About the Kids.” But if you visit many schools, one can tell that many decisions are made and many practices are in place - yes with the adults in mind. Everything from the schedules to the furniture to the instruction is based on adult needs. What would school be like if we designed everything with students really in mind? If we did, would we still be arguing about cell phones in the classroom? What about cell phones at lunch (see No Cell Phones At Lunch Says Middle School)? Would the staff stand for these types of rules for them? How about dress codes? Many school still have dress codes that restrict style of hair, clothing, colors and more. These are not about safety or decency, but about what adults like or feel comfortable around at work. These next steps are just part of the effort to create and sustain this type of culture.
Smart Start / Week of Welcome
If you’re going to create a learning environment that’s about students, it seems we need to examine how school starts. We need to start with Culture and end with Culture. The messages students get during the first moments, days and weeks in their respective classes will inform them what the purpose of school really is. If we let rules, policies and limits dominate the early discussions, activities and experiences, then that’s the message we’re sending in terms of priorities. We need to focus on the things that really matter to students - relationships, relevance, connections, applications, value and so much more. The first moments, days and weeks should incite inspiration in our students, not aspiration. Students should come home from the first few days of classes completely enthused about the possible learning experiences they are going to have. Who are they going to meet and work with? What are they going to create? What decisions are they going to make? If we start better, maybe we can operate better. Maybe if we start with energy, we can work to sustain energy. But if we start flat, safe and status quo, then that’s what we’ll have. See SmartStart: Starting The School Year Off Right at Getting Smart.
Ask the Students and Never Stop Asking
Students have good ideas and are more than capable of providing feedback on what works in the classrooms and what can help facilitate learning. We have great digital tools now like Google Forms and others that allow teachers and school sites to survey students on a regular basis about their learning experiences and growth needs. My last school decided to survey our students quarterly in each class about how their learning was developing, what instructional practices were helping and what they needed in terms of specific academic support. Site Leaders can also learn by surveying students about everything from school culture to school safety. Additionally, students should be providing their peers feedback on their work and projects. We should be including students and their voices in all that we do. If we want our students to learn responsibility and ownership of their lives, we have to begin now.
Students / Stakeholders As Customers
To some, this seems strange. To others, it seems so obvious. To be honest, every students in American now has real educational choices. All could go online tomorrow. Most could enroll in a charter school. Bottom line, they don’t have to attend their neighborhood school or any school in particular. So, it’s just common sense or good practice to realize that students, as well as parents, have school purchase power. But beyond that, it’s the right and smart thing to do. Sure, some students, or parents, are unreasonable. But most are not. Most just want to be treated fairly, listened to and have opportunities. We need to create vehicles to have students help make their own educational experience and learning better. We need to do more than just get parents involved. We need to enlist the creativity, innovation and resources of parents in order to make them truly partners in a better school experience for all. So, yes have customer feedback surveys. Yes, have focus groups and other face-to-face meetings where school leaders and staff listen and learn. But make it a cultural foundation. Staffs should work daily on treating their constituents well and always working to make their experience better. That’s our job. It’s that simple.
To me, it’s about whether we are welcoming organizations that value culture and learning experiences - for all and above all. If we do, and many of us say we do, then let’s rethink our approach to students. Yes, they know they need boundaries and expectations. But, what they really crave is inspiration and possibilities.