School's Out: A Conversation with Educators

Q&A   11 October 2018
By Frankie Bonilla, El Centro de Estudiantes, and Doug Schuch, Bedford County Public Schools, and Natalie Tucker, Pike Road Schools

 

We’re restricting what the learners and educators can do on a daily basis. I was really impressed by this insight because it’s not the context—detaching the classroom from the learning—I’ve come at this work from before.

Doug Schuch
Superintendent, Bedford County Public Schools

On October 8th, five educators published School’s Out—an invitation for communities “to explore how profoundly we need to alter our perspective on the meaning, feel, and delivery of learning.” To showcase the diversity of education stakeholders you are likely to find in your own community, we have conducted three robust conversations with community and organization leaders, young learners and parents, and educators. Each conversation revolves around the question: What if school did not exist? What would you create?

Our final conversation was with three educators who are engaged in transformative work in their respective communities: Frankie Bonilla (Assistant Principal at El Centro de Estudiantes), Doug Schuch (Superintendent of Bedford County Public Schools), and Natalie Tucker (Instructional Partner at Pike Road Schools). 


Q: In one or two sentences, what do you believe the purpose of education is?

Natalie: What comes to mind for me is this idea of activating a young learner’s current thinking and expanding their knowledge.

Doug: Is it too cliché just to quote our mission statement? It seems like five simple words, but we spent a lot of time on it. Our mission statement at Bedford County Public Schools is “Empowering learners for future success.” For me, that gets straight to it. I would also add it’s not empowerment just for the sake of learning but empowerment that is tied to some future task or functionality that would best serve the individual learner’s community.

Frankie: I believe the purpose of education should be about knowledge of self. I’m a big proponent of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and understanding what kind of learner you are. It’s more about how we get learners to understand how they learn best, rather than focusing on how we get the information to people.

Natalie: I agree with Doug and Frankie, especially the connection to the future. I remember having the opportunity in undergrad to personally experience learner-centered education in a way that was authentic, empowering, and diverse. We also experienced a biofunctional model that focused on keeping kids in constructive and collaborative modes of learning. I believe it is essential for educators to see everyone—themselves included.

Q: If you were to create an education system from scratch where the physical structure or institution known as “school” did not exist, what would you create?

Doug: Last summer, I facilitated a conversation with 40 folks from our district, including young learners, who talked about the evolution of our education system—from the one-room schoolhouse to a bunch of one-room schoolhouses under one roof for the sake of efficiency. We’ve created a model in which a teacher owns a classroom, yet until we can stop attaching a physical classroom space to an individual teacher, we’re not getting to this vision of empowering learners for future success.

We’re restricting what the learners and educators can do on a daily basis. I was really impressed by this insight because it’s not the context—detaching the classroom from the learning—I’ve come at this work from before.

Frankie: I’m one of those people who thinks we need to destroy the whole system and build from the ground up only because I feel like we as educators aren’t properly trained to have our practice match what we now know about the development and function of the brain. Instead, we’re taught to be scripted in the classroom, which teaches students how to be scripted as people.

For example, we so often preach “history repeats itself,” essentially using that to put limitations on the student’s learning. This summer, I kept pounding my head against the wall (figuratively) as I was helping folks design project-based learning curriculum for urban youth at the University of Pennsylvania. During the design process, nobody talked about the importance of creativity. It was all about analytics and being able to read, decipher what’s being said, and determine the logic of what to do in particular situations.

 

We discovered how much more difficult it was for older learners to make this shift to learner-centered education. The youngest ones didn’t have much trouble, but I think the older ones had too many years in the traditional system to buy-in right away.

Natalie Tucker
Instructional Partner, Pike Road Schools

In the current system, educators are the gatekeepers of creativity, but we say you can’t be creative before you are analytical. That’s just not the case. Studies have shown if you give a Kindergartner a problem to solve, they will come up with 100 ways to solve it. If you give an 18-year-old a problem, they’ll try one solution and if it doesn’t work, they’ll stop.

When we talk about learner-centered education, if we teach learners to create and understand themselves, then they will be able to go back and decide what their rigor is: “What do I need to learn to get to the next step?”

Currently, I think we’re too afraid of this style of education, so to me, in the utopic place of learning, we would actually teach learners how to teach themselves and educators would become facilitators. This potential future would rely on a understanding of how the brain functions. I like to think about how marketing uses tactics to convince us to buy things. What if we had students create movies of themselves, like a mental map, that connects their emotions to their minds and generates a holistic approach to learning?

All my thinking comes from the context of high schoolers, so I’d be curious to know what this would look like for educators who work with younger age groups. With teenagers, I feel like I’m always trying to get kids to unlearn things from their past education experiences.

Natalie:  I think I can speak to that question. The first year at Pike Road Schools we were K-8. What we discovered was how much more difficult it was for older learners to make this shift to learner-centered education. The youngest ones didn’t have much trouble, but I think the older ones had too many years in the traditional system to buy-in right away.

 

I wanted them to see that whether you’re talking about the potter’s wheel or an airplane, we’ve come to a time where we don’t view these innovations as technology anymore. We can’t push technology aside thinking we can’t change our ways.

Frankie Bonilla
Assistant Principal, El Centro de Estudiantes

With our younger learners, I believe the science of human development needs to be front and center for everything we design. In that context, learner-centered education must acknowledge learners’ stages of growth and development, while also working to make them autonomous learners. One way we have been looking to do that is by creating student portfolios and using student-led conferences. As they move on to each grade, we offer a little bit more autonomy and are considerate of what each learner is ready for.

It’s really amazing to see learner-centered education be implemented throughout an entire K-12 system. I wish everyone could see the different dynamics at each level. Going back to the question of what we would create if school didn’t exist, we have teachers right now who are using “leaving to learn,” and it’s not just the whole class going on a field trip. Our learners want to learn about a variety of things, so smaller groups will leave to learn (without the teacher) about that particular topic of interest. The educator is at the school facilitating, while parents or other volunteers take those kids to where they need to go. But, like I said, the kids are in charge of their learning. It’s important to note that while it’s a very exciting opportunity to provide the learners, we have to work very hard to maintain these opportunities.

Q: What resources currently exist in each of your communities that are being taken advantage of?

Frankie: I always start with the iPhone or smartphones in general. We don’t have much tech at our school, and teachers are afraid to allow learners to use their phones for learning. I led an Advisory at Big Picture Learning’s Big Bang conference in Atlanta and when I asked the educators: “How do you guys feel about technology in the classroom,” half the group said, “It doesn’t belong” or “It’s a distraction.” I followed up by asking, “What do you do with the student who is doodling on a piece of paper for hours at a time? Do you take away their pencil and paper because that’s a distraction?” After I asked that question, you could hear a pin drop.

I wanted them to see that whether you’re talking about the potter’s wheel or an airplane, we’ve come to a time where we don’t view these innovations as technology anymore. We can’t push technology aside thinking we can’t change our ways. Instead, we should ask: “How do we use these tools in a way that is captivating for the use of learning?” I feel like a lot of educators don’t know how to use these technologies themselves and are unwilling to acknowledge that and learn how to take advantage of what’s available.

Doug: In Bedford, our district covers 760 square miles and serves about 10,000 learners. We’re a rural district. In that context, we have two resources available to us that I don’t think we’ve tapped into enough. One, we have a huge retired population. Folks move here when they retire because our taxes are low and we have beautiful mountains and lakes. I feel like these are folks who have a lot gifts they could share. If we connect with them in a way that makes the learning more meaningful for our young learners, I think that would be a great opportunity.

 

We have a community that is more than willing to be involved in what we’re doing. They’re always asking how they can help or what we need from them.

Natalie Tucker
Instructional Partner, Pike Road Schools

The other resource is our active business community. Even though we are very engaged in that space as a community, I think bridging that gap between the world of work and the world of school for all of our learners is something we have to leverage. I think when you go back to the concept of open-walled learning, I don’t see how you do that without including the business community.

Natalie: We’re very similar to Bedford as far as resources. We have a community that is more than willing to be involved in what we’re doing. They’re always asking how they can help or what we need from them. The reason we haven’t tapped into those resources as much is because when these folks come into our school and observe how teaching and learning is done, they don’t know how to be a resource in something so unfamiliar to them. They often form an opinion (positive and negative) of what’s happening, rather than act as a resource to the learners.

Some folks come in and say, “My business is going to benefit from this tremendously;” while others say, “This is not how school looked when I was in school. What is going on here?” We expect this diversity of responses, but it slows us down in getting connected with our community and utilizing their resources.

Another resource we don’t take advantage of enough is the history that surrounds us. We’re in the Civil Rights capital of the world (just outside of Montgomery, AL). We can drive seven miles, park, and see everything that we would want to see. I think sometimes we take that for granted.

Finally, we are a new district but are geographically close to an older, traditional district. I think we could use each other as a resource to see what is working and what isn’t for both districts.

 

Parents are a huge potential resource, and I think we ignore them at our peril.

Doug Schuch
Superintendent, Bedford County Public Schools

Doug: When Natalie talks about how difficult it can be to get community members to plug in, I think that’s been our struggle as well with parents. As superintendent, I don’t force any of our schools to make a learner-centered shift. I invite people into this and support them when they choose to do it. Even though it is ultimately part of our mission and vision, I don’t think this is something you can mandate—it’s an invitation. Through that, it’s grown quite tremendously.

We have three or four schools that have really jumped into this learner-centered transformation with both feet. I think these schools made the mistake early on of getting too far ahead of the families in their communities. They were asking their students to jump in, but now they realize they should have taken more time with the community. It has taken more work to do things in reverse, but they’ve developed a real sense of ownership and understanding with the parents. It doesn’t mean they all are buying into it, but they at least made the parents partners in the conversation, instead of making parents feel like outsiders to the process. Parents are a huge potential resource, and I think we ignore them at our peril.

Natalie: We did the same thing our first year. We assumed this was what people wanted and they’d be on board, but we’ve had to go back a little bit and let everyone grab on.

Frankie: As a re-engagement school, the parents are just happy their kids are in school. It’s different from when I was previously working at The Workshop School where kids were choosing to attend. I had high school freshmen, who all came from traditional learning environments, asking for worksheets. They would look at this learner-centered way of learning and say, “This is not learning, mister.” Their parents would make similar comments. They’d ask, “Where is the homework? Where’s the worksheet?” We’re like, “Well, the homework is for your child to take the model bridge he just built, test it’s durability at home, and rebuild it once it breaks.” They’re like, “That’s not homework, that’s Shop class!” We would emphasize the importance of engaging these kids in creativity and design. It’s a whole different approach.

 

Whenever we had a visitor, potential funder, or general community connection, they would meet students at the front door, and none of the adults would be involved. By the time the tours were over, people would say, “Ok, where do I give the money?” or “How can I be a part of this?”

Frankie Bonilla
Assistant Principal, El Centro de Estudiantes

I think it’s also worth mentioning that it’s not just parents who struggle with the transition. Even at a school where we had 60 kids and a $4 million budget—we had everything an educator could ask for—we still had teachers who would leave after a month. After being the best math or science teacher in their traditional environment, they couldn’t make this transition. Going from the person who dictates everything that happens in a classroom to taking a step back and filling the role of advisor as the kids created things for themselves, it was extremely difficult to make that shift. They weren’t accustomed to showing a kid how to do something and receiving a response like, “That’s not a good way of doing it. This is a better way.” They weren’t used to learners having that much voice.

For parents and educators alike, who are used to the traditional system, they don’t immediately see learner-centered education as a solution.

Q: What strategies come to mind in how you would enroll your community in this idea of transformed education system?

Frankie: I think a good starting point is asking community members—and business owners, in particular—what a great employee looks like. Google and Apple are already comfortable with not looking for people who have graduated from college. They’d rather have people who are self-taught and are willing to go through some of the trainings to get on-boarded. When I first heard about that, my head exploded. These are the companies who are creating our future, and they are letting us know that the way we’re educating today is not working.

Moreover, giving the community a voice in general is a good start. It lets us go from student-centered to people-centered in everything we do. When we ask what a great employee looks like, we can follow it up with how can those qualities be developed in a learning environment? It’s going to be a challenging question for our communities to consider, but I think we need to challenge them. We have to create that space for them to generate something new from a question they have never been asked before. Just because learner-centered education hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean we can’t do it.

Natalie: We’ve discovered that it’s one thing to be learner-centered and explain what we do, but it’s entirely different when we amplify the voices of our students, regardless of age. They are able to articulate how they are learning and why it matters to them. If a learner can articulate what they’re learning and communicate that to the parents and community members, it’s very hard to argue, regardless of your initial stance.

When we encounter parents who are struggling with understanding or buying into this new system, we ask why it’s a struggle for them. On the flipside, with parents who are all-in, we ask what clicks for them. It’s good to know all the perspectives; but at the end of the day, when the learner’s voice is the loudest, people melt. The walls come down even with some of our toughest critics. And, it’s not always the first conversation that convinces people, but it gets them down the right path.

Doug: I focus on one-on-one conversations with people who are most directly involved in the system. It spreads slowly this way, but it seems to spread more deeply. I feel that if we go out to the community right away and try to explain things, it isn’t very effective. Most people in the general community are attached to the context that is normal to them, so it’s hard to start there. Our strategy around this is to develop a common set of beliefs around this learner-centered movement and this mindset internally. Then, once people are comfortable having those community conversations, we let them loose.

Putting this strategy into action, I worked extensively with young learners this past summer to develop professional learnings for principals and teachers. Two of these young learners are presenting with me at our school board association conference in November. They’ve scheduled us for a room with 200 people because I think the inclusion of young learners was tantalizing. I remain skeptical that any of the attendees will truly understand what we’re doing, but I feel like it’s an important step. To grow the movement beyond our own district and put these ideas in front of people who wield a lot of decision-making power—we need to do anything we can to get the message out there.

Frankie: One of the things I liked at The Workshop School was their student-led tours. Whenever we had a visitor, potential funder, or general community connection, they would meet students at the front door, and none of the adults would be involved. We didn’t even coach them. We simply said, “Show them around and answer whatever questions they have.” By the time the tours were over, people would say, “Ok, where do I give the money?” or “How can I be a part of this?”

When I was in my twenties I wanted to bully these people into changing, but as Doug and Natalie have brought up, it’s a slow grind. We’re coming up against a huge system, and there’s a lot of trust issues we have to work with. This might be a bit off topic, but it illustrates the lack of trust between education and community. When I was teaching at another school only a couple blocks away from El Centro, I remember educators asking me, “Aren’t you afraid when you have to walk to the train?” It showed me how there was a disconnect with the school and the community. Regardless of the communities we’re in, we need to make that connection.

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