“Schools That Work”

(Posted earlier this month in the NAIS Teachers of the Future blogs)

This year I experienced a sort of existential crisis of my faith in educational systems. It may have been a result of some kind of re-entry culture shock after spending two summers in Africa working with teachers and visiting many rural schools. But I don’t think I am alone in this experience. If you follow the blogs and listen to the conversations at education conferences, you can’t help but notice a certain sense of urgency and even despair regarding the state of education in North America (some might even say the Western world).

This crisis in faith took on a personal note as I watched my youngest  child flounder aimlessly in school, unengaged, disengaged and tuned out Рand yes, he was attending a top-rated independent school. This year we moved him to a public school, where he is a little happier, but even he is very much aware that the quality of his education is lacking.

Ironically, at the same time as technology has become all but ubiquitous in homes and classrooms due to the pervasive use of mobile gadgets, phones and computers, many of us educational technologists are openly acknowledging that mere access to technology is not a guarantee to increased learning outcomes.

I began my own informal quest for “schools that work”. As I have traveled a fair amount recently for conferences, I have often sought out peers in my network and asked if I could visit their school. Of course, I read some excellent books recommended by other educators (see below for list of Dangerous Books to Read). Because I have hosted a webcast for the last three or more years, I have also had many thoughtful conversations with educators from around the world.
Of course there is no such thing as the perfect school which can accommodate every student. However, there are some common denominators that “successful” schools seem to share. Here are my observations:
  • Positive school culture where student leadership and initiative are overtly and implicitly valued
  • Reality-based learning is valued and included as part of the core curriculum and is integrated with community service
  • Professional learning communities are established where colleagues share wisdom, knowledge and mutual respect
  • Innovation and new ideas are embraced; failure is “permitted” in non-threatening atmosphere
  • Teachers have sense of autonomy over their courses in order to permit creativity and innovation
  • Teachers collaborate on inter-disciplinary projects
  • Parent involvement is valued
  • Sense of global citizenship and responsibility is fostered
  • Place of technology is seen as a tool to undergird practices stated above
It is my belief that the key to the creation, development and maintenance of any of these common denominators is school leadership with a strong vision.

So what do you think? What have I missed?

In late June I will be working with a team of international teachers (volunteers with Education Beyond Borders) in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. We will be facilitating ICT (Information, Communication Technologies) workshops for thirty-five top level administrators in the province whose mandate is to implement an ICT programme in their province – the largest by population size in the country – and the poorest. Most of the schools lack a fully functional computer lab. Some of the schools lack even electricity. The government leaders recognize the necessity of ICT training to prepare students for the 21st century in a rapidly recovering nation. Yet, the chief problem identified by the head of this programme (with whom we are working) is lack of support by the principals of the schools. We have a daunting task ahead of us.
After our time in the Eastern Cape, we move to Cape Town for three weeks to work with our NGO partner to facilitate workshops for teachers in the townships. Our partnering NGO has recognized the importance of school leadership in the process of ICT integration and offers a three-day “Bootcamp” for principals which is followed up over time with visits and support. We are trying to share this model with the initiative in the Eastern Cape.

Last August, I had the incredible opportunity to work in a very rural district in Western Kenya where our team helped to facilitate ICT workshops for the local teachers. Before the workshops began, we visited many schools and on one day we hired a boat to visit schools on the remote islands in Lake Victoria. Although the District Education Office arranged our boat trip, we did not contact the schools before our visit so that we could catch them in action. Our first stop was Kibuogi Island – so remote you will not find it on Google Earth. We landed on the shore and walked up the hill to the primary school. In spite of the fact that it was barely 10 AM, the principal was so drunk he could barely walk. His staff of teachers (five or so thoroughly disgusted men and women), sat with him in his “office” for our conversation. It was pretty clear that morale was low. The teachers clearly felt forgotten and very discouraged in their jobs. We finally managed to persuade one of the teachers to join us the following week for the workshops. Erick joined us and would later prove to be one of the most enthusiastic teachers of the more than fifty teachers who participated. Using his cell phone he occasionally texts me from his remote island to let me know how he is doing. In December he shared that our workshops inspired him to return to university for further studies. The drunken principal has been replaced this year.

Visiting the Primary School on Kibuogi Island

Visiting the Primary School on Kibuogi Island

We gave Erick a Flip camera. The children on the island (which has no electricity) have never seen even a car or bicycle before. With the Flip, Erick can take footage when he visits the mainland and show his students such things. We also encouraged him to use the camera to document his students’ experiences so that we can appreciate this tiny forgotten island.

The drunken principal of a school on a remote island will remain with me as a powerful analogy of the necessity for school leadership with vision in order to empower students and teachers to greater possibilities and learning opportunities.

As I have sorted out this existential crisis, which is gradually moving from cynicism to optimism, the issue of leadership has become critical. How do we, who may not be in leadership positions, become change agents to promote “schools that work”? How can we encourage vision for change in our school leaders? How do we support our leaders who do promote change but who may be unpopular (change is not easily embraced by all, after all). How do we know when it is time to move on?

In some ways, this blog post is my swan song to the NAIS. Reading Sir Ken Robinson’s The Element is a dangerous thing. After four weeks in South Africa in June and July, I will move to Maputo, Mozambique to follow my passion and join the staff at the American International School of Mozambique. After only one year of public high school, my son is very much looking forward to completing his high school education in the IB programme of that school with students from 50+ nationalities. I am thrilled that I will be able to continue my volunteer work with community service and education in Africa.

Other Dangerous Books and Essays to Read (which have greatly influenced my thinking, practice and this blog post):

Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn & Curtis Johnson
The World is Open by Curtis Bonk
Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky
What Matters Now (compilation of short essays with proceeds going to “Room to Read”)
Drive by Daniel Pink

And, of course, Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortensen (Stones Into Schools is on my list to be read)

3 thoughts on ““Schools That Work”

  1. Jake says:

    I am a current student of education, and we have been discussing many of these topics recently in our classroom. It is a nice change to see them being applied an a real life setting. I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

    thanks,

    Jake

  2. Laurel Ridley says:

    The state of affairs in education (both in the developed and developing world) is staggering to say the least. I too find myself moving back and forth between “cynicism to optimism”. Gladly, I always land on optimism. As I say to my students, “stay in the struggle”.

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