Community of learners

A footnote to my previous “Design for Student Leadership”: Student Voice and School Design

Working on my never-ending doctorate (I’m on year 7, I note sheepishly), I recently re-examined one of my absolute favorite school design texts, Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Senge, Cambron-Mcabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, and Kliener, 2000).

Recently I wrote about student leadership and what I believe to be the profound educative value of leadership experience. Then, while reading Schools that Learn, I stumbled across the following:

One last comment on why schools seem remarkably difficult institutions to change and where particular leverage may lie. Industrial-age schools have a structural blind spot unlike almost any other contemporary institution… (more…)


Publicity for schools: Understanding the centrality of youth identity

As I have been detailing, I am the newly appointed CEO of Arise Academy Charter High School. A follower if the “entry plan approach” (thank you Dr. Torch Lytle for teaching me this), I have been trying to focus on learning about the school, its design, and the needs and desires of its members.

Unfortunately, hard lessons come early and often. A Philadelphia Inquirer article by Annette John-Hall and soon to be released film made with our students highlight one of our great challenges–creating an appropriate public persona for the school.

At Arise, as I have already learned, our students don’t want to be sold as “needy kids”–they don’t want to be pitied or patronized and they don’t want to be treated like “puppies in the window.” Unfortunately for us and them, this is what we at the school and what members of the media have inadvertently been doing. John-Hall reports:

Arise gets its share of publicity for being the only charter school in the country created for students who have been in the foster-care system.

Which can be a blessing, but is mostly a curse, students say.

“I don’t need sympathy,” senior Zakia Boatwright says.

“They [the media] come here, they treat us like puppies in the window,” adds senior Kalea Baker. “At the end of the day, they make us feel bad.” (more…)

Arise Academy Charter School – Gabriel’s New Home

Dear friends,

On Wednesday of last week I was appointed the CEO  of Arise Academy Charter School in Philadelphia. Arise is the first charter school in the nation to specifically serve youth in foster care (see a newscast about our prom here). The school is young, only two years old, and small, with less than 200 students. It is a perfect home for the work of purposeful school design.

As I apply the design work we have done at the REAL Schools to our work at Arise, I will continue to use this space to discuss school design and all of the related issues we have been engaging in.

Thank you so much for your ongoing support and I look forward to sharing our design work as we continue to put our theory into practice and as we continue to turn our practices back into theory so that we can share them with all of you.


Learning Community Design 2.0: The library as a communal center of learning

My friend and urban planner, Jen Hurley (Twitter: @JenHurPlanner), forwarded me this piece (April 1, 2011), by Rick Cole, on libraries as learning communities. In response to the declining importance of book lending, Cole points to an Australian library design that dramatically recasts the place of libraries in the community.

Citing Ross Duncan, the manager for Learning Communities for Sunshine Coast Council, a large Australian metropolitan region, Cole explains the new vision for libraries in the Sunshine Coast:

Duncan’s philosophy is to infuse the 10 branches of the Sunshine Coast library system with a focus on “changing the world.” He’s shaped what is essentially an informal family university offering more than 4,500 activities, workshops and events that foster a “learning community.”

Duncan’s vision is of a dynamic learning space that allows individuals of every age to learn, study, interact, and take action together. The model is especially compelling because it seems so much more functional and flexible than the traditional schooling design for learning with its set classes and limited outcome goals. Duncan’s library design is powerfully open-ended–allowing transformative learning to incubate in a variety of safe spaces: (more…)

Ackoff’s stages of idealized design – a powerful tool for school designers

Design and design thinking are popular terms in business literature. While Adaptive Path founder and experience designer Peter Merholz has some concerns with the way the phrase “design thinking” is being used in general (he recently wrote about the use of the term), I like to use the concept of design thinking when talking about schooling because it entails open-ended approaches to problem solving, but not unstructured or haphazard ones (See Tim Brown’s book, he is the CEO of the international design firm IDEO).

Ackoff, Magidson, and Addison’s (2006) “idealized design” offers relatively clearly defined design process that is intended for ongoing organizational design work. (I have written about Ackoff before and you can see his definition of design here). Ackoff et al. explain “interactivism,” the philosophy behind their conception of idealized design. They write, “Interactive planners…plan backward from where they want to be to where they are now. They plan not for the future but for what they want their organizations to be at the present time” (p. 5). In this way design is work done on the present shape of an organization as well as on its future shape. Idealized design creates both a vision of the future and the conditions of current reality required to accomplish that future.


Keeping Collaboration in the Classroom

At the end of each school year, I ask my students to reflect and write about their favorite part of kindergarten.  The most common answers? Literacy and math centers and learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In today’s academically rigorous curriculum, the first thing to be sacrificed is socialization and play.

Ironically, during and after kindergarten, students are expected to be able to work in collaborative learning groups.  What did Dr. King teach us?  Acceptance, peaceful interactions, and learning to live and work together among many others.  These four lessons are those most important for students when learning how to interact and work in groups, which is why many kindergarten and early childhood teachers are asking why socialization is no longer an emphasis of the curriculum.  The range of social skills, particularly in urban areas, of students entering kindergarten is rather wide.  Some students have had preschool and daycare experiences prior to entering school, while others enter with the social skills of an average three year old.

It is almost inconceivable to me why socialization, especially play, is the first to be taken from the curriculum.  How can we expect our students to learn and work together in collaborative groups during literacy and math centers when they lack the necessary social skills to be able to do so?  Through collaborative groups students learn to become problem solvers, self-regulators, higher level thinkers, and leaders.  As educators it is our job to provide an environment which allows students to practice these skills. (more…)

A forty-year school district head start teacher comments on teacher motivation

I had a really interesting conversation with my mother-in-law about the design of incentives for teaching. She taught as a Head Start teacher in the school district of Philadelphia for more than 40 years.

Here are some of her thoughts on teacher motivation:

will think about this more

but quickly … these are my thoughts

Teachers – when treated as professionals – should be expected to and supported in doing their job.  Built into the educational community should also be supports for whatever hurdles are in the way of meeting the educational needs of children. Traditional rewards as motivators to do the job one is hired to do and is getting paid to do, I find demeaning.  (I may be alone in feeling this.)

Rewards and or acknowledgments  for teachers, as for any professionals we come across who give considerably more than is  necessary to preform  their job with dedication and a goal of excellence, is very different from motivational rewards to encourage hard work (not the best words for what i mean).

“Rewards” or “motivators” should be closer to giving thanks to those around us who do something special. They maybe should reflect special acts in the same way we occasionally find it meaningful to thank people in our lives for something unique they have done for us or to acknowledge something we saw them do for others that especially touched us.

The design of teacher motivation should reflect a respect for them and their hard work, support to make their work easier, and an appreciation of the unique roles they may play in the lives of the school and its community members.